India’s large average could be explained by the large number of group cases involving long-term wage theft patterns, MFA notes.

Across the region, construction was the most notorious sector for not giving workers their dues.

To remedy this problem, states must hold private-sector employers accountable for wage theft, arbitrary dismissal, and coercive or retaliatory tactics, the MFA report states.

Poor fixes for migrant worker wage theft in India

MFA’s numbers uncover only a fraction of the problem. Scores of other cases “go unreported and are invisible due to lack of documentation,” William Gois, the regional coordinator of MFA, says.

The lack of regulation and grievance redressal makes matters worse. A separate August 2021 report on wage theft found India’s response to the crisis tepid. The number of unresolved labour dispute cases in 2019 and 2020 alone was 6,988. (This figure consists of cases only from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, except the UAE.)

“The repatriation procedures have been undertaken hastily by countries of both origin and destination, without any proper redress mechanism, since courts and other labour dispute mechanisms have also been closed during the period of the lockdown,” the JWT movement’s website states. “Therefore, these violations will pile up and either not be addressed or overburden the existing dispute resolution mechanisms.”

Take the example of Kerala, which witnessed more than 500,000 workers returning from abroad after losing jobs during the pandemic. The government’s Non-Resident Keralites Affairs department set up a toll-free number and provided complaint forms to report wage theft cases. But 600 complaints and escalations later, there was little relief.

Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh government has been gathering data on returnee migrants to reintegrate them into the domestic labour market or help them immigrate again, but it’s often too little too late.

“Return and reintegration efforts have always been an afterthought and governments seldom earmarked resources for the same,” the MFA report states. “Consequently, migrants, that were depended upon as contributors to their economy and social milieu, returned empty-handed.”

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