NEW DELHI — India’s government moved Monday to evacuate thousands of laid-off workers who are stranded in Saudi Arabia as its economy struggles with low oil prices.
Large numbers of Indian workers have lost their jobs in recent months and have neither the money nor the required exit visas to leave Saudi Arabia. More than 2,500 Indian workers living in labor camps have gone without food for the past 10 days, said officials here.
Now, New Delhi may airlift the workers home.
“Our workers are hungry and thirsty there,” India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, said in Parliament on Monday. “We spoke to the Indian Embassy and asked them to send free food to them. I am monitoring this personally. They now have food for seven to 10 days.
“The problem does not end there,” she said. “We don’t want to leave them there. We have to bring them back.”
Some media reports said the number of Indians who want to return may be larger than the government estimates.
“It is possible that if the numbers swell, New Delhi might consider the option of sending in a ship,” the Hindu, a daily newspaper, said Monday.
On Saturday, Swaraj appealed to the 3 million Indians who live in Saudi Arabia to help feed the suffering workers. “There is nothing mightier than the collective will of the Indian nation,” she tweeted.
Most of the Indians are blue-collar workers, engaged in construction work and low-level factory jobs. Saudi Arabia, with the largest economy in the Middle East, has been home to thousands of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. But the sharp drop in oil revenue has hit the country hard.
Indian community groups in Saudi Arabia distributed vegetables, lentils and oil to the starving workers under the supervision of the consulate in Jeddah on Sunday.
Many Indians have lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as companies close down their operations because of financial difficulties. Construction firms, which employ a large number of cheap foreign laborers, have been badly affected as governments cut back spending on infrastructure projects.
Shamshealam Khan, 32, had operated an excavating machine for renovation work on the king’s palace in Jeddah.
Hailing from a poor family in central India, Khan moved to Saudi Arabia in 2008 and began work on the palace project in December.
“Only when I save and send money back every month, my family is able to eat comfortably and educate my younger brothers,” Khan said in a telephone interview. “Last year, our company began delaying the salaries. For the last seven months there has been no salary at all. The company closed down its offices a month ago, saying the government has stopped all payments. Ten days ago, the cafeteria stopped giving us food, too.”
The workers protested on the street, Khan said. “Ten thousand Indian workers are sitting idle. They have run out of money. If one of us has a heart attack, there is no money to pay the hospital.”
Many of the workers want to return home, but under Saudi rules only their employers can sign the papers to send them to India. Until then, the Indian Embassy cannot issue emergency exit visas.
Swaraj said Indian officials are trying to persuade Saudi officials to waive this rule and are negotiating with the companies to pay the workers their pending salaries.
“Imagine the workers’ plight — many of them were just surviving on water and salt when we reached [them] with the food packets,” said Asim Zeeshan, a representative of an umbrella organization called the Indian Community of Jeddah. “But now they have food that would last them at least a week.”
When some workers told their bosses that they wanted to return to India, they were turned over to the police, said Vinu Ganesan, an Indian worker outside Riyadh.
“I still have my job, but my salary comes late, and they have already cut one-third of it,” said Ganesan, 27. “I just want to go home now, but I am afraid to speak up or move out. I don’t want to end up in jail here.”