The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States
For any visitor arriving by plane in one of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the contrast between visitors from the West (who can often get a visa easily at the airport) and the long lines of Asians is immediately visible. The latter arrive in the region to do work that Gulf citizens are not accustomed or willing to do. They join the millions of migrant workers, mainly from Asia, who have formed a major part of the labour force of the GCC countries since these countries experienced their oil booms. The nationals of some of these countries—Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have, over the years, even become a minority in their own country. Topping the list is Qatar, where non-nationals account for 87 percent of the total population and 94 percent of the workforce (see figure 1).
In any of those countries, migrant workers constitute the majority of the working population in construction, retail, industry, and domestic work. In contrast, the national populations of the Gulf countries often prefer (guaranteed) government jobs that generally provide higher earnings and more holidays.
The two groups of migrants that have been the focus of human-rights organizations are construction workers and domestic workers.
The Gulf states have been employing armies of construction labourers, mainly from Asia—India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal—to build the huge projects that these countries are so well known for and that are used to build them an image of modern, progressive nations. Gulf states—particularly the UAE and Qatar—have been able to complete high-profile infrastructure and commercial projects such as Burj Khalifa in Dubai (10,000 to 12,000 labourers worked on the tower), stadiums for the World Cup 2020 in Qatar, and prestigious university and museum facilities on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Although the GCC is not a monolithic entity and each state has its own particular challenges in immigration and labour force management, there are several similarities in their labour situations. The conditions that many of these workers, along with workers in other sectors, are facing are widely considered to amount to forced labour and human trafficking:
-Workers are recruited to the Gulf by fraud and deception
-Legal residency of workers is tied, under the kafala (sponsorship) system, to one employer only
-Workers are denied the right to transfer their employment to a third party
-Workers are denied other basic labour rights, such as a minimum wage and the right to organize strikes.
These conditions make them highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Lured to the Gulf but trapped
Central to the problems facing migrant workers in the Gulf states is the kafala system, which ties the worker, and his labour permit, to a single employer, often a national of the host country. The system was originally designed to regulate foreign labour and delegate the oversight and responsibility for migrants to citizens or companies. But the system has, in many, though not all, cases a stranglehold on those who are, to various degrees, subject to abuse (from the withholding of salaries to physical abuse) by their employers. The kafala system prohibits workers from changing employers or leaving the country without the employer’s permission. When they do, the sponsor has the right to cancel the visa, and the worker risks arrest or deportation.
The system has been widely recognized as rendering migrants vulnerable to exploitation and amounting to forced labour. The UN Special rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau, argued that the system creates imbalance, as employers pay high fees to recruit the worker and, given their huge investment, feel that they need to hold on to the worker.
In Qatar, recruitment fees range from 6,000 to 15,000 Qatari rials ($1,600-4,000), according to Migrant Rights (a local grass-roots platform that raises awareness of the plight of migrant workers). The employer reportedly has no assurance that the employee will meet his requirements.
Special Rapporteur Crépau called for the kafala system to be abolished and full labour rights to be introduced.
While kafala regulations are essentially similar in all Gulf countries, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the only ones that require migrants to have an exit permit before leaving the country. When an employer refuses to issue an exit permit, the worker is trapped. This affects highly-paid (Western) workers as well as low-paid labourers. The case of the French footballer Zahir Belounis, playing on the Qatari national football team, came under scrutiny in 2013, when he was denied an exit permit for nearly two years because of a legal dispute with the management.
This does not mean workers in other countries are free to go when they see the necessity; they can face criminal charges if they “abscond” and then risk detention.
Most affected by the sponsorship system are those who have been lured to the Gulf with promises of high salaries and benefits but find on arrival that they have been deceived. Poor migrants from countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal pay exorbitant fees to recruitment agencies (up to thousands of dollars), often taking on debt in their home countries. Upon arrival, their passports are often taken from them (although that is prohibited in all GCC states), and they are forced to sign contracts that differ from the ones they signed back home and find that their pay is much lower than they expected. Statistics from the Labour Market Regulatory Authority in Bahrain indicate that in 2011, 65 percent of the migrant workers had not seen their employment contract and 89 percent were unaware, upon arrival, of the terms of their employment. As a consequence, many migrants struggle to repay the debts they have taken on to get the job—not to mention the abuses many suffer, including the withholding of salaries, salary deductions, excessive working hours, and inadequate accommodations.
Because of the kafala system, workers often have no way to complain or report abusive working conditions, as they are completely dependent on the whim of their employer for their legal residence in the country.
Nevertheless, the Gulf continues to attract workers from countries where salaries are much lower and where many people depend on remittances from family members working in the region (see figure 2). According to the International Labour Organization, an employee in Saudi Arabia earns about $1,400 a month, while the average in the Philippines is $100. A construction worker in Bangladesh earns an average of $65 a month, while he can earn about $500 in Kuwait.
A widespread violation of workers’ rights across the Gulf region is delayed payment or even non-payment of wages, experienced by workers in several sectors. This poses a huge problem for workers, as many are indebted even before arriving in the host country, on account of the fees they had to pay recruitment agencies. They struggle to make ends meet, and the debt endangers family members back home, as they often rely on remittances to survive.
In Oman, at least 1,000 migrant workers were stranded in Muscat in the first half of 2015, when their employers failed to pay their salaries. A worker from a construction company in the oil industry told Migrant Rights that hundreds of his colleagues had not been paid for six months. The companies are reportedly using the impact of the low price of oil as a pretext not to pay the salaries and renew the workers’ labour cards, which leaves the migrants undocumented.
In most Gulf countries, migrant workers often stage strikes to protest unpaid wages. Migrant Rights reported that in May 2015, 400 cleaning workers at the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET) in Kuwait organized a strike to protest as many as eight months of unpaid wages. Workers told local media that they had been surviving on food and money donated to them by students on the campus. Instead of resolving their issues, the workers’ companies withheld the workers’ salaries to pressure PAAET into paying the debts PAAET owed them.
Labour strikes—and, in fact, all other aspects of collective bargaining—are illegal in all Gulf states and are often met with fierce repression. A strike staged by some 2,000 factory workers in Bahrain’s garment industry to demand better working conditions and wages led to the arrest and deportation of 12 organizers, who had been threatened for organizing an illegal strike. In the UAE, labour strikes are handled with extreme repression, especially after the revelation of the abuse of construction labourers at high-profile projects in Abu Dhabi. Of the 3,000 workers that staged a strike there, 300 were arrested, tortured, and deported.
But it is not only when they face strikes that Gulf states resort to the deportation of migrant workers. In November 2013, Saudi Arabia began a campaign to detain and deport undocumented migrant workers who are mainly from Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The Saudi government found the migrants to be in violation of the labour law and vowed to prosecute any migrant who did not have a designated employer.
Saudi authorities have not deported Yemenis since late March 2015, after the war in Yemen intensified, but the deportation of migrants from other countries continued. At the end of July 2015, Saudi authorities said that they had deported more than 1.2 million “irregular” people over the previous 22 months.
The crackdown resulted in the abuse of many of the workers, according to Human Rights Watch. None of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch were allowed to challenge their deportation. Most undocumented workers had entered Saudi Arabia by illegally crossing the border with Yemen, but some ended up illegal after fleeing abusive employers. Those so-called “absconded” workers violate the labour law when they leave their sole employer.
According to Migrant Rights, a half-million workers fled their employers in Saudi Arabia in 2013.
Saudi Arabia also justified the crackdown by saying it needed to create jobs for its own population—youth unemployment stands at 28.3 percent, according to World Factbook 2012—but, while Saudi Arabia is under pressure to provide more jobs to its own citizens, it is questionable whether Saudis would be willing to take up the kinds of work performed by migrants. A Gallup poll indicated that the majority of Saudis prefer government jobs, given the greater perceived stability of those jobs.
It is not only undocumented migrants who are subject to arbitrary detention and deportation. In Kuwait, migrants of any nationality other than Kuwaiti may be deported, even for violating the traffic laws. In June 2015, a British national was deported for driving without a Kuwaiti driving licence. Kuwait arrested 25,000 migrants in the first half of 2014, according to Migrant Rights.
Most Gulf states are under pressure to provide jobs to nationals and are trying to reverse the demographic imbalance caused by migrant labour. Oman plans to cut the number of expatriate workers by 6 percent, or around 200,000 workers. Kuwait plans to cut the number of migrant workers by 100,000 each year. The success of such policies, however, remains to be seen. In Oman, authorities have often been too quick to force companies to hire Omani nationals instead of expats, which has, due to lack of training, led to a deterioration of the quality of services and to dissatisfied workers. Gulf News reported that more than 60,000 Omanis resigned from the private sector in 2014 alone, indicating the slow progress of nationalization of the workforce.
These nationalization policies are reinforced by discrimination against low-paid migrant workers. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, migrants in Qatar are often seen by their employers as “property” rather than as human beings with the same human rights as those enjoyed by Qatari nationals; this is reflected in the systematic exploitation of migrants, particularly domestic workers. Some nationalities are seen as more valuable than others and are paid higher salaries, even when doing the same job. In March 2013, Kuwait approved a law that segregates state-funded medical services and introduces separate timings for citizens and expatriates. Kuwaiti citizens would be able to access medical services in the morning, while non-nationals would only be able to visit doctors in the afternoon. Activists have called the law racist.
Safety first, or safety last?
The Gulf states have been able to complete their state-of-the-art infrastructure thanks to millions of migrant construction workers from Asia and other countries, but safety is not a priority, and workers face great personal risk.
The British daily The Guardian revealed in September 2013, based on figures obtained from the Nepalese embassy, that Nepalese workers in Qatar had died at a rate of almost one a day, most of them from acute heart failure. The investigation, which also found evidence of widespread abuse, raised questions about Qatar’s preparations to host the World Cup in 2022. In May 2015, the Washington Post reported that about 1,200 workers had died while working on the infrastructure for the World Cup. The report was criticized, as the figure included workers who were not working on the infrastructure for the football championship, but it does paint a picture of the hazardous, sometimes fatal, working conditions labourers face. While the World Cup is an important and high-profile project for Qatar, the construction spree in Qatar would have taken place even had Qatar not won the bid. Several reports have suggested that these deaths are caused by the high pressure under which migrant workers work in Qatar, often in scorching heat and forced to overwork to meet the employer’s targets. Also making the deaths suspicious is the fact that migrant construction workers are often young men who have had to undertake medical tests before coming to Qatar.
The Indian embassy in Qatar recorded more than 3,850 complaints relating to labour and welfare issues during 2014.
It is not only in Qatar that construction workers are at risk. In Kuwait, “rampant” corruption has led to hazardous working conditions and many accidents on construction sites, according to Migrant Rights. Workers often lack proper safety equipment, and contractors use cheap materials to save on production costs. In March 2015, two Egyptian workers were killed during the construction of the state-funded Sabah al-Ahmad Mosque. The building collapsed, allegedly due to cheap construction materials and failure to take safety measures.
In 2014 alone, Kuwait’s fire department reported 48 cases of building collapsing during.
Another major state-funded project, the new campus of Kuwait University on the outskirts of Kuwait City, was the scene of many accidents and several deaths. The construction site was hit by fires in June 2013 and in December 2014, when a four-story building was damaged. In May 2014, at least two Egyptian workers were buried in a hole eight metres deep when a landslide occurred at the site. Kuwait’s education minister at the time, Ahmad al-Mulaifi, resigned following the incident. In June 2015, a worker died while demolishing a commercial building, when an excavator fell nine stories after the floor under it collapsed.
“She comes with a three-month guarantee” – Domestic Workers
The most vulnerable migrant workers in the region are the millions of domestic workers—maids, nannies, cooks, drivers—who are mainly from Asian countries. More than 750,000 domestic workers work in the UAE; 96 percent of Emirati families employ domestic workers to care for their children. There are some 620,000 domestic workers in Kuwait, accounting for more than 21.9 percent of the country’s total employment.
Yet they are often ill-treated. Abuse and exploitation of domestic servants is widespread in the Gulf. They are subject to extremely long working hours—63.7 hours a week is the average in Saudi Arabia—physical and sexual abuse and are sometimes forbidden to communicate with the outside world or even spend time outside the household. Workers often flee to their countries’ embassies, as they cannot always get help from their recruitment agencies. When fleeing their employer, they are “absconding” and violating the labour laws of the countries. This, in turn, puts them at risk of arrest or worse, of deportation.
The workers are not protected by any law. Domestic work is excluded from the labour laws in all six GCC states. The workers are not seen as employees, nor are the places where they work—households of citizens or expatriates—considered to be workplaces. Consequently, domestic workers’ rights, such as working hours, wages, and days off, are not protected. Employers and recruitment agencies say their rights are protected through a contract between employer and employee, but the economic dependence and the inaccessibility (or lack of knowledge) of complaint mechanisms makes it difficult to report abusive working conditions.
Telling of the attitude towards domestic workers is the following remark made by a recruitment agency in Qatar in a phone call with Amnesty International: “She would come with a three-month guarantee, and, if she is no good, you can change her.”
According to Amnesty International in its report “My Sleep Is My Break,” it is in the interest of the recruitment agencies to return the worker to the employer or simply assign the worker to another. Once workers flee from their employer, they risk being detained and even deported. Women who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse have not been able to hold their employers accountable. Of the 52 female domestic workers Amnesty interviewed, twelve reported violence had been used against them, including slapping in the face, poking of eyes, burning with hot oil, and kicking in the stomach. None of the women who reported abuse had seen the prosecution or conviction of their abuser. Amnesty also found cases in which the worker was accused of having an “illicit relationship”—a relationship outside marriage, which is illegal in the Gulf states—after reporting rape.
In all GCC states, migrant workers end up illegal when fleeing their employer without the employer’s permission.
Originating countries such as the Philippines often complain that their citizens are treated unfairly or underpaid in the countries that hire them. They sometimes ban their citizens from working in certain Gulf countries, but such bans are difficult to enforce; there is often a poorer country from which Gulf recruiters can get their workers. Such countries are highly dependent on remittances sent by their citizens working abroad. Bangladesh, for example, received remittances worth $8.4 billion from workers in the six Gulf states during 2014, according to the World Bank.
Gulf states have, under international pressure, promised reform of their labour and sponsorship laws. In 2009, the Bahraini government passed a law that allowed workers to switch employers without permission, but that law was amended in 2011, requiring workers to stay with their employers at least one year before being allowed to switch. Qatar, in the spotlight because of the World Cup building boom, announced the abolition of the kafala system in May 2014, but, according to Migrant Rights, Qatar’s Shura (advisory council) has resisted reforms to the law, reportedly favouring the interests of employers.
The kafala system is still effectively in place in all GCC states.
One reason that the system is difficult to abolish is that some GCC citizens take financial advantage of it, by selling visas to workers, even if they are not employing them. These so-called “free visas,” illegal in all GCC states, cost workers a lot of money but enable them to work for several employers and be more independent. Private individuals also employ “runaways,” thereby avoiding high recruitment costs.
In order to ensure that workers are paid on time—or even that they are being paid at all—several Gulf states have introduced wage-protection systems, which oblige employers to pay workers by bank transfer. Qatar introduced the system in February 2015, giving companies six months to implement the measure and introducing a punishment of imprisonment for up to one month and fines of up to 6,000 Qatari rials ($1,600) for failing to do so. Although human-rights activists have welcomed the measure, they argue that it will not resolve issues such as unfair wage deductions and the lack of overtime pay and a minimum wage. After a delay of several months, Qatari officials have said they would enforce the law beginning in November 2015.
The wage-protection system has been in place in the UAE since 2009 and in Saudi Arabia since 2014.
There have also been attempts to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers. During a meeting of GCC labour ministers in November 2014, the ministers reportedly agreed to introduce a uniform contract for the region’s domestic workers. Civil-society organizations welcomed such a model contract, because it would provide a much-improved standard for all domestic workers, but the announcement was retracted by GCC officials in January 2015, saying that they did not have the authority to introduce binding changes.
In June 2015, Kuwait’s parliament proposed a draft domestic-workers law, which would be the region’s first law specific to domestic workers. The law grants workers a weekly day off, 30 days of paid annual leave, end-of-service benefits, and other rights, but the core issues have still not been adequately addressed; maximum working hours are not clearly defined and workers are not guaranteed any means of reporting abuse and, like any worker, are prohibited from changing employers without permission. The law fails to set out enforcement mechanisms, such as labour inspections. On the contrary, it even allows employers to hold the worker’s passport “with the worker’s consent.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Kuwait has gone further than other Gulf countries in protecting the rights of domestic workers. Bahrain’s 2012 labour law grants workers annual leaves and access to mediation in labour disputes but does not provide protections such as weekly days off, a minimum wage, and limits on working hours. Saudi Arabia also adopted regulations regarding days off and leaves, but workers can still be required to work up to 15 hours a day.
Despite these attempts at reform, some of which are positive, at least in theory, the Gulf states still have a long way to go. As human-rights organizations have stressed, with the restrictive sponsorship system still in place and inadequate enforcement of the law, migrant workers are still vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. This, in turn, damages the modern and progressive image of the region, an image that these states are eager to maintain.
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