Tourist visa scam traps Indian workers in abusive jobs in UAE

Exploiting employers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are increasingly using tourist visas to hire Indians in a scam that leaves immigrants open to labor abuse, police and activists said.

Indian immigrants with visitor visas, quicker and cheaper to obtain than work permits, distrust reporting work exploitation for fear of revealing their illegal status, they say. Sources also state that these employers are bringing these immigrants through cheap private jets.

The magnitude of the problem is unknown since visiting visas do not appear in the migration or employment records of India or United Arab Emirates.

But workers, police and lawyers said the practice is on the rise in a nation with more than 3 million Indian migrants, often hired in the short term to work on major construction projects.

“Employers and recruiters have colluded and invented this route of visiting visas,” said Bheem Reddy, president of the Emigrant Welfare Forum in the state of Telangana, in southern India.

Reddy’s charity estimates that at least 10,000 immigrants from the state, only one of 29 in India, have found work in the United Arab Emirates after entering the country with visiting visas since July last year.

Demand for short-term workers before major events, such as the Dubai Expo 2020 world fair in October, has further fueled the scam, a United Nations official said on condition of anonymity.

No workers rights.

Indian migration to the Gulf has been constant for decades, but the use of tourist visas to abuse workers is new, activists say.

Anuradha Vobbilisetty, who works on migrant labor cases in Dubai courts, said she had supported some 270 workers with tourist visas since 2018 who had not received full payment.

While work permits are issued by embassies and leave a paper trail, visitor visas are sold by hotels and airlines, which does not grant workers rights and free employers from any responsibility.

“Their passports were taken by agents at the airport, they were not paid for months,” Vobbilisetty said.

“But they continued to work without wages because they feared complaining about working illegally,” he said, adding that 227 of the workers ended up being paid after the police intervened.

According to government data, the number of complaints filed by Indian migrant workers against recruiters related to work abroad tripled to more than 600 between 2016 and 2019.

Many Indian workers in the Gulf, from cleaners to builders, say they have talked to the government and charities about abuses of withholding wages and debt bondage and torture.

Afraid to speak

More than a third of the 8 million migrant workers registered in the UAE were Indian as of 2017, according to the latest UN data.

However, the number of Indians going to the United Arab Emirates, at least officially, has declined due to an economic crisis and the increasing use of visiting visas, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India.

The consul general of India in Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, said that workers using the official channel are protected as the details of the employer and the hiring agent are recorded.

UAE embassy officials in India said they had no history of immigrants working in the country after entering with visitor visas.

Some smaller employers cut expenses and save costs with visiting visas, said Sureshkumar Madhusudanan of the Federation of Foreign Recruitment Associations of India, an umbrella group.

Many employers also use visitor visas to hire workers quickly and then convert them into work permits, according to activists.

Mohammad Pasha filed a police report in Telangana last November against an employment agent who arranged a supermarket job in Dubai with a visitor’s visa.

When the police asked him at the Mumbai airport if he was going to work, Pasha lied and said he was sightseeing, since the recruiter said he risked to jail if the authorities discovered the truth.

Pasha said he worked 16 hours a day without overtime and was paid 800 dirhams ($ 218) per month, not the 1,000 promised, but his employer warned him to keep quiet.

“They said he would be behind bars if he spoke,” he said by telephone from Telangana. “I wanted to approach the labor court but I was afraid because I was working illegally with a visiting visa.”

After three months in Dubai, Pasha raised enough money to fly home. Telangana police said they had arrested the agent and his accomplice, who had given Pasha the job and his visa, for fraud and launched awareness campaigns in the villages.

“We are telling (potential immigrants) that these (visiting) visas are different from work visas,” said officer Upender Reddy.

Bheem Reddy of the Emigrant Welfare Forum questioned whether Indian authorities were vigilant enough when they examined migrants leaving the country to work abroad.

“It is visible if they are true tourists or looking for employment,” he said. “A visibly poor worker in sneakers for tourism … how is this allowed?