Gulf migrant workers are being abused in complete silence

Gulf migrant workers are being abused in complete silence
Comment: Migrant workers across the Gulf suffer abuse and inhumane conditions imposed by their employers in the absence of serious governmental monitoring or intervention, writes Fadi al-Qadi.
5 min read
05 Dec, 2017
Migrant construction workers in Dubai described horrific experiences and inhumane conditions [AFP]
In Spring 2006, I joined colleagues from Human Rights Watch, where I worked at the time, to launch a report on abuses against migrant workers in the UAE. 

It was perhaps one of the rare occasions when an international human rights group was able to conduct investigation into an issue that is not quite comfortable for ruling establishments in these countries, and at a time when cities like Dubai, for instance, were emerging as regional hubs for unprecedented construction boom.

Many accounts of migrant construction workers in Dubai in 2006 referenced horrible experiences and inhumane conditions imposed by employers in the absence of serious governmental monitoring or intervention, or both.

HRW report "Building Towers, Cheating Workers" released in Dubai in April 2016 has been instrumental in drawing global attention to the untold stories of hardship, ill-treatment and systemic abuses of hundreds of thousands, if not more, of migrant workers in the Gulf region.

Almost 11 years later, not that much has changed, either in the UAE or elsewhere in the Gulf region. On one hand, governments argue they have enacted, amended or introduced new laws to provide for more protection of migrant workers in their countries.

On the other - and where things are not progressing - there is still a great lack of enforcement. Even if legal reforms were arguably good, two factors have tremendously reduced their significance:

Almost 11 years later, not that much has changed

First, abuses against migrant workers (not only construction workers) are "systemic"; they happen because they are well and deeply enshrined in the system of governance.

One of the most prominent features of the systemic abuses against migrant workers is the kafala (sponsorship) regime which pins migrant workers' legal status to the decisions of a sponsoring employer. The system requires workers to get an exit visa from that sponsor in order to leave the country, or their authorisation to move to another employer.

The kafala regime is widespread in Gulf countries and it perfectly embodies ingredients of modern slavery; by stripping the worker from his/her right to choose; by confining the worker to the wishes of the employer and by restricting the worker from seeking other opportunities or the option to exit.

The kafala regime is widespread in Gulf countries and it perfectly embodies the ingredients of modern slavery

Second, abuses against migrant workers are carried out in almost absolute total impunity. Limited features of civil society still exist in Kuwait, for example, but other countries forcefully suppress political liberties and rights to express, assemble and associate.

In other words; to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable for what they have done, you will need at the very least, independent monitoring of the conduct of the government; accessible channels for complaints and independent judicial inquiry and investigation.

These things are not available in most Gulf countries.

Migrant workers are barred from organising themselves into trade and professional associations (unions); from organising strikes or expressing their views on grievances they have been subject to.

The spectrum of migrant workers includes domestic workers, construction workers and others in several professions.

Abuses against migrant workers in Gulf countries take various forms. A recent HRW report summarised the abuses against Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates to include "excessive working hours, unpaid salaries, and physical and sexual abuse, and abusive visa-sponsorship rules in those countries".

In May this year, Amnesty International strongly criticised widespread abuses of migrant workers in Qatar as the country prepares to host the World Cup competition in 2022.

In its report, Amnesty produced an audit of construction workers conditions in Qatar which revealed that "79 percent of workers reported paying recruitment fees; Contractors making workers work excessive hours, with half not giving them rest days, including one person who worked continuously without a day off for almost five months (148 days); 25 percent of workers at one company said they felt unable to report health and safety concerns for fear of reprisal; and, four of the 10 contractors surveyed were holding worker's passports, which is potentially an offence under Qatari law."

Read more: Meeting Lebanon's slaves

One of the practices that - together with other things such as the kafala system - may encourage trafficking, is collecting recruitment fees from workers.

This practice might happen in the worker's country of origin, (which, therefore, bears responsibility for addressing this) or in the country of destination, where employers may deduct these fees from workers' wages.

Trafficking is a serious problem that crosscuts with issues such as sex trafficking, child trafficking, sexual abuse and modern slavery.

Migrant domestic workers on the other hand have historically been subject to numerous forms of abuse and ill-treatment across Gulf countries, in part because of the nature of their work (at private homes) and because an absolute majority of migrant domestic workers are women.

Trafficking is a serious problem that crosscuts with issues such as sex trafficking, child trafficking, sexual abuse and modern slavery

Although they face the same generic problems as others (low wages, delay of wages, kafala, etc.) domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to potentially extreme abuses (ranging from beating, injury, sexual abuse or death).

Data available through shows that there are over 2 million migrant domestic workers in Gulf countries. Migrant domestic workers account for 21.9 percent of the total employment in Kuwait; 36.6 percent of total female workforce in Bahrain; 99.6 percent of all domestic workers and personal assistants in Saudi Arabia, and 20 percent of the total expat workforce in UAE (750,000 domestic workers).

Abuses against migrant workers may include tragic consequences too. data shows that 56 percent of all suicides in Kuwait in 2013 were committed by domestic workers; 37 percent of suicide cases involved Ethiopian female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and 700 suicides among Indian migrants in the UAE between 2007 and 2013.

Fadi Al-Qadi is Amman-based Middle East and North Africa human rights, civil society and media commentator.

Follow him on Twitter: @fqadi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.