India-Gulf Migration: Corruption and Capacity in Regulating Recruitment Agencies*


The recruitment of workers in India for the purpose of fulfilling construction and other low-skilled occupations in the Persian Gulf region has gained substantial attention in recent years.  Thousands of Indians emigrate to Gulf countries annually as contracted workers. In 2007 the number low-skilled Indian migrants acquiring emigration clearance to work in the Gulf topped 800,000 (809,453) from 466,456 in 2003 (MOIA 2008). These migrants were individually recruited by one of 1835 registered recruitment agencies in India and gained work clearance in Gulf Countries. The overall stock of Indian migrants currently residing in the Gulf is unknown, but recent estimates suggest that 19 percent of all Non-resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin living outside India are estimated to be located in the Gulf (Khadria 2006).

Who are these migrants? Indian migrants first started going to Golf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the 1970s after the oil boom in West Asia and the Gulf. During the 1970s and 1980s the composition of migrants from India was largely restricted to South Indian migrants from Kerala (Venier 2007).  During the 1990s the demand for labor in GCC countries increased and diversified across many sectors from construction, services, oil and manufacturing.  As a result, the composition of Indian migrants emigrating also diversified.  Indian migrants come from all states across India, but migrants from the southern states of Kerala, Andhra Pradhesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have comprised more than fifty percent of emigration clearances over the past decade (ICOE 2009).

While a substantial body of research exists across different economic, political and cultural dimensions assessing India-Gulf migration, there has been little research to track the processes of recruitment and the steps involved in migrating from India to the Gulf (ILO 2009). This research attempts to document the process by which recruitment of low-skilled labor occurs in India. In doing so, I seek to better understand the procedures of contract brokering between recruitment agencies, job candidates and Gulf-based employers—including abuses and corruption. During three months of fieldwork in India and Qatar, I conducted in-depth interviews with recruitment agencies based in five cities of India, employers in Doha and government officials in both countries to better understand recent trends in the case of Indian migration.1 Below, I present an overview of the research and some key findings from the fieldwork.

It is estimated that there are approximately five million low-skilled workers in GCC countries, but how did they get there? A recent document released by the Indian Council of Overseas Employment outlines three phases of a job candidate’s India-Gulf migration: pre-departure, the employment phase and the capacity building phase (ICOE 2009, 21).  The pre-departure phase includes recruitment, obtaining a passport, the job search, insurance procurement, travel booking and emigration clearance from the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs to travel abroad.  A recruitment agent facilitates these tasks. The employment phase is the period in which a migrant is working for an employer in the foreign country, and the final phase is the return of the migrant to his/her home country.  The Indian government positively refers to this period as the capacity building phase where the migrant worker carries the skills learned abroad back to India.

To date, little is known about recruitment agencies with the information coming largely from two sources: the Indian government and media coverage of recruitment abuses. In 2004 the Indian government created a new ministry to manage India-Gulf migration, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA).  The MOIA has worked to outline the process of India-Gulf migration and to develop regulatory oversight mechanisms for recruitment.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 depicts the process of recruitment as outlined by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. When an Indian citizen (labor) wishes to work in the Gulf, he or she must go through a recruitment agent.  Recruitment agents are brokers, usually residing in India, who facilitate the process of emigration from India to the Gulf.  By law, they are required to be registered with the Ministry. Employers based in the Gulf develop working relationships with recruitment agencies in India, and the agencies are responsible for matching qualified job candidates to the employers.  When employers need labor, they must first send an official “demand letter” to the recruitment agency they will work with to hire Indian workers.

The recruitment agent finds qualified candidates to meet employers’ needs. In addition the agent helps candidates with the required pre-departure activities, including obtaining approval from the Indian government for the candidate to migrate (MOIA 2010). Recruitment agents are paid by employers, job candidates, or both for their services.  The MOIA has set the maximum amount an agent can charge a job candidate at Rs. 10,000 (approximately $200 USD), but I found the average cost to migrants to be between Rs. 40,000 and Rs. 50,000 ($800 and $1000 USD) among twenty-two recruitment agencies I interviewed—a cost that can be the equivalent of one year’s salary for some migrants. On paper, the recruiter provides a service to both employers’ and job candidates and this results in a win-win situation.  Results from my research and fieldwork suggest, however, that in practice the outlined policy framework for India-Gulf recruitment presents many challenges.  Information asymmetries between job candidates and recruitment agencies and unregulated recruitment provide opportunities for corruption.

I present three of the most prominent regulatory failures I encountered based on my fieldwork and policy processes for addressing them. These cases include: unregistered recruitment agents; fishing for candidates; and incomplete information.

First, an obvious disconnect between the MOIA’s recruitment framework and what I observed in my fieldwork is the use of unregistered recruitment agents, or “sub-agents.” The Ministry keeps a list of 1835 registered agents. In reality there are 1000s of agencies, mostly illegal.  Sub-agents operate out of travel agencies, teashops and their private homes. These agents illegally recruit job candidates on behalf of registered agencies.  Many registered agencies I interviewed openly admitted to working with subagents. One subagent I interviewed, doubling as a travel agent in Goa, noted that he prefers to call himself a consultant so that he does not encounter hassle by the Ministry.  When I asked him if he feared getting caught, his reply was: “My Uncle owning this travel agency is with the Congress Party, and he is powerful.  No one will touch us, but in the case that I am caught, I know that he will make sure my business stays alive” (Interview in Goa, December 21, 2009). Others were less worried because they perceive very little regulation on the part of the Ministry.

Subagents create an additional principal between the recruitment agency and job candidates. This is where many candidates end up facing fees exceeding the Rs. 10,000 maximum charge set by the Ministry. Subagents result from the failure to regulate recruitment.  While there is a fine for subagents who are caught, the reality is that very few agencies are caught.  In March of 2009 the Ministry had only listed six such agencies on its website (MOIA 2010).  Strengthening the capacity for regulation of subagents is needed to curtail corrupt practices and illegal contract brokering in India-Gulf Migration.

Two additional observations of the India-Gulf recruitment process are interconnected and result from information asymmetries between agents and job candidates. The two practices I observed in interviews—fishing for candidates and not disclosing full information to candidates—are based on deception and call ethics of the recruitment process into question. In fact, recruitment agents have an incentive to supply as much labor as they can to Gulf employers. Fishing for candidates, for example, occurs when agents seek pockets of candidates in remote rural areas.  This process often occurs with the help of subagents who work from villages to attain qualified candidates, who, in many cases, are illiterate. Agents create a picture of Gulf countries as wealthy and often fail to provide full information about the working and living conditions migrants will be entering—working long hours outdoors in high temperatures and living in labor camps. As one recruiter I interviewed noted:

I only recruit in villages. You see, with what is happening in India today, supply of workers to the Gulf has gone down. Slowly, Slowly, earnings in India have been increasing. Workers don’t want to go the Gulf unless they live in a remote village and don’t know any better.” (Interview, General Manager, Mumbai Recruitment Agency, 4 January 2010).

This manager outlines why he has an incentive to recruit in villages and not to provide full information to potential candidates.  If a candidate knows he isn’t going to earn more than he could earn by moving to the city, will he still have an interest to move? Likely not. His method of recruitment is luring workers through ignorance, which boils down to exploitation.

In the midst of the economic crisis, India’s economy continues to grow while many countries in the Gulf have made cuts, including cuts in wages to migrant labor.  Nine out of ten employers I interviewed in the Qatar noted that they had either stopped hiring or let labor go.  Three out of ten noted that they had lowered wages. At present recruitment agencies are not required to provide any information about workers’ rights, their working and living conditions abroad, or return migration to job candidates. Empowering job candidates about their rights by requiring this information in a format that reaches all candidates, including illiterates, is greatly needed.

In sum, there is a disconnect between the Indian government’s documented policy framework on the recruitment process and the actual operations of recruitment.  Notably as a result of failure to regulate recruitment agencies and information asymmetries between recruitment agencies and job candidates, several opportunities for corruption and abuse in the process of recruitment arise.  Building capacity for regulation with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and requiring information be disseminated to migrants about their rights in India and in their destination country are two potential steps towards limiting instances of corruption and abuse.

Mary Breeding is Post-Doctoral Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.


ICOE. 2009. “Impact Assessment of Global Recession on Indian Migrant Workers in Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Malaysia.” New Delhi: Indian Council of Overseas Employment.

International Labor Organization. 2009. “Costs of Coercion.” Geneva: International Labor Organization.

Khadria, Binod.  “India:  Skilled Migration to Developed Countries Labour Migration to the Gulf.” Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 2006.

MOIA. 2008. Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs 2008 Annual Report. Delhi: MOIA.

MOIA. 2010. “Emigration Services.”, Accessed 15 August, 2010.

Venier, Philippe. 2007. “From Kerala to the UAE: Emerging Trends in a Mature Labour Migration System.” Maître de Conférences, Université de Poitiers, CNRS MIGRINTER.


* The author would like to thank the Institute for the Study of International Migration and the Center for International and Regional Studies for their generous support in funding this research.

  1. The research design involves a mixed methods approach including both qualitative and quantitative components.  Aside from the qualitative interview material presented here, a second component of the research has involved the collection of Indian migration data from the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in Delhi to obtain a better understanding of trends in Indian migration to GCC countries over time. []


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One Response to “India-Gulf Migration: Corruption and Capacity in Regulating Recruitment Agencies*”

  1. Jo Says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thank you for an excellent article – I am a social entrepreneur based in Qatar, and have been feeling helpless for a while in seeing the issues created by misinformation between these agents.

    I have begun to create a solution to this through crowd sourcing information using mobile phones and helping the community share the realities of the placement with others without fear.

    Your insights from feild work will be very valuable to at this stage as we design the product.

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