By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As producer of a long-running television show that spotlights the problems faced by Indians working in the Gulf, Rafeek Ravunther is used to hearing their heart-rending stories of exploitation.
But a few years ago, he started noticing something new. Migrant workers, many of them women, were calling the show from Gulf countries saying they were being held for ransom.
Their stories all followed a similar pattern - recruitment agents were holding them hostage, demanding large sums of money from their families in exchange for their release.
"The journey back home has become even more difficult for these migrants because of the demands for ransom by the agents," Ravunther told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Many are just stuck there, often under house arrest, because their families can't pay this ransom."
Ravunther's account chimes with what labour activists say is a new and growing form of exploitation in the Gulf states, where the International Labour Organization estimates 9 million Indians work.
Last month, relatives of three victims lodged a petition with India's highest court criticising official complaint mechanisms - the first time the government has been taken to task in court for its perceived inaction.
Many victims are unskilled or semi-skilled workers lured by job agents' promises of good pay and easy work who find themselves trapped in low paying domestic jobs, often working up to 15-hour days and having to endure verbal or physical abuse.
Josephine Valaramathi of the National Domestic Workers Movement said the charity was now dealing with at least two cases a month of agents demanding money from families of women working in the Gulf in exchange for their return home.
The agents usually keep the women's passports, effectively holding them hostage in a foreign land, she said.
"This demand is pushing families into deep debts and till they arrange for the money, the worker is abused and ill-treated in the agent's custody."
It is a story Sadiq Basha, a taxi driver from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is familiar with.
He spent weeks trying to get his wife back from Kuwait, where she had gone to work as a maid, after the agent she went through demanded a ransom for her release.
Frustrated by the lack of government help, he went to the Supreme Court together with relatives of two other victims, seeking to force the government to step in and secure his wife's freedom.
"She kept calling and crying," Basha said. "She begged me to save her each time, saying she could not bear the abuse, she was not being given enough food and her health was failing. I felt so helpless."
Eventually Basha managed to raise the cash to save his wife - but only after wracking up debts with moneylenders that he does not know how he will repay.
"I just wanted it all to end and when I got the money, I just paid up," Basha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a series of phone interviews. "Going to court was the last resort not just for me but for everyone who was in a similar situation."
Rahul Dutt, director at the overseas employment and protectorate of emigrants office in India's foreign ministry, said authorities had been able to quickly resolve cases where people had migrated legally for work.
"But when people go through illegal agents, the problems get multiplied many times," added Dutt.
He declined to comment on the Supreme Court petition as it was an ongoing case, but said it was difficult to trace people who went through illegal channels to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
"It is like looking for a needle in a haystack to find them and bring them back," he said.
'TREATED LIKE SLAVES'
India's foreign ministry received more than 9,500 complaints between January and June this year from migrant workers in the Gulf.
Most concerned unpaid salaries, no days off or medical cover and a refusal to provide exit or re-entry visas so they could visit their homes in India.
Arrokiaraj Heller, researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, said workers often tried to contact Indian embassies, but the government "has not made it easy for them to access justice".
Ravunther, whose show "Pravasalokam" ("Migrants' World") airs in the southern state of Kerala where many Indian migrants working in the Gulf are from, said the ransom cases started when India's foreign ministry brought in its e-migrate system.
This is a platform for registered agents, employers and workers with orientation programmes and an in-built grievance mechanism and was aimed at increasing transparency.
But take-up has been low, in part because the system requires employers in the Gulf to pay a security deposit to the local Indian embassy.
"The steep cost meant many went back to illegal agents so they could get maids for cheap," said Ravunther.
"And in these situations, agents exploit the women, forcing them to work, while pressurizing the family to pay for her release."
The show airs seven times a week across three local channels and receives up to 20 calls a week to a hotline number, with any urgent cases referred to the government.
Family members are invited to a studio to discuss their relatives' plight, while harrowing footage from the Gulf shows women pleading tearfully for help to come home.
"Everyone knows that these people are just trapped, taken and treated like slaves," said Nagamuthu Swaminathan, the lawyer acting for the petitioners in the Supreme Court case.
"Yet families don't know how to resolve the problem, how to seek justice." (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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