Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Where do the migrant workers in the Gulf originate from, and what sort of jobs do they do?
Most migrant labourers come to the Gulf from other countries in the Middle East, Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Men primarily from South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan) work in the construction sector, supplying the manpower responsible for the Gulf State’s rapid real estate and infrastructure boom. Their labor has fueled iconic projects including the UAE’s Palm and Burj Dubai, as well as the day-to-day foundations of the Gulf’s burgeoning cites.

Additionally, tens of thousands of women from countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Indonesia work as housemaids for local families. Others work in low-paid jobs in factories and as cleaners. In Saudi Arabia, migrants are regularly employed as drivers, since women are not legally allowed to drive.

Why do migrant workers come to the Gulf and the wider Middle East?
The oil boom has created tens of thousands of jobs for labourers, maids, cleaners and drivers to fill a gap in the labour market. The Gulf’s rapid economic growth has generated millions of jobs that entail the recruitment of workers from all around the world, even in the current global economic downturn. Non-oil rich countries such as Jordan and Lebanon also attract a large number of migrant workers because of the high demand for domestic service.

The overwhelming majority of these migrant workers come from developing countries, and travel to the Middle East with the aim of earning enough money to send back to their families back home. The money that they send back (remittances) represent an extremely important source of foreign exchange for many developing countries, accounting for a high share of GDP in countries such as the Philippines and Nepal (11% and 17% respectively).

What kind of human rights abuses do migrant workers face in the Gulf and other countries in the Middle East?
For many workers, working abroad is a risky business. On arrival, many employers confiscate migrant’s passports for ‘safekeeping,’ that effectively prevents workers from leaving the country without their permission.

Construction workers are often subjected to overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions, and corrupt recruitment brokers may take a cut from their wages. They often work in unsafe conditions and extremely high temperatures. It is no coincidence that one of the most common causes of death among perfectly healthy young men is cardiac arrest. Accidents on construction sites are also a frequent cause of death and serious injury.

Many women working as domestics are overworked and underpaid, and are often not allowed a day off. Some women are beaten by their employers, and in extreme cases, raped or tortured. Domestic workers are often excluded from the labor laws govern migrants in other sectors.

What is the Kafala system?
All countries in the Gulf have a sponsorship system known as the kafala system. This means that a worker’s right to work and remain in the host country is tied to the sponsorship of his or her employer. They are not free to switch jobs and can end up being deported if they attempt leave their employer. This law has particularly serious implications for women working as maids, who are legally required to reside with their employer. The kafala system makes it extremely difficult for domestic workers to leave in situations where they are underpaid or abused. It also binds construction and factory workers to their employers. Bahrain will be the first country in the region to scrap the kafala system, as of August 1st 2009, and there are signs that other countries may follow suit in the coming years.

What help is there available to migrant workers if they run into trouble?
The nearest embassy or consulate are migrant workers’ main resource for support since host governments typically avoid taking responsibility for their welfare. A number of embassies offer shelter to workers who are fleeing abusive employers, and can help with their repatriation. However, many migrant workers do not have diplomatic representation in their host country, and have no-one to turn to for help in emergencies (for example, Nepal does not maintain embassies in Kuwait or Bahrain). Some countries in the Gulf declare ‘amnesties’ every couple of years, when they offer to repatriate any workers that have become ‘stranded’ without their papers, homeless or illegally employed.

There are several NGOs which offer help to migrant workers in distress throughout the Middle East, including the Migrant Workers Protection Society in Bahrain. MWPS provides temporary shelter for workers and helps them to access diplomatic and legal help. However, governments in the Gulf states are generally suspicious of NGO activities, and local laws can make it difficult or even impossible for civil societies to address migrant issues.
Community organisations run by expats to help nationals of their own countries, such as overseas Filipinos, Indians and Pakistanis, also help to fill the gap left by migrant-sending and receiving countries. They often lobby both governments to procure rights for migrant workers, and function as support mechanisms for their respective citizens.

What can concerned individuals do to help?
BREAK THE SILENCE! The first stage of Migrant Rights’ work is to raise awareness about the abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf and Middle East, both inside and outside the region. Currently, this issue is rarely discussed publicly. The deafening silence endures social and political passiveness to the problems migrant face. We must come to terms with the fact that thousands of migrant workers are living in squalid conditions in labour camps outside city limits, or are languishing in the households of abusive employers with broken spirits, their hope of ever seeing their families again fading with each day that passes – and we must realize that our silence is complicit.

Everyone can contribute to the procurement of fair, just conditions for migrant workers. Simply writing to your local paper, MP, government or embassy helps to break down the taboo surrounding the discussion of migrant’s rights. If you blog, write something about migrant abuse. If you’re a journalist and are in a position to do so, write about the situation of migrant workers in the local papers. We are here to help you if you need comment or contacts, and we are just an email away. If you are a lawyer (or know one), partner with local migrant rights advocates and accept cases of abuse on a pro-bono basis.

We have a collective responsibility to these workers and must amplify their voices and their struggles before it’s too late.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East