Interview with Nick McGeehan from Mafiwasta

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Jan 18 2009

Migrant Rights talks to Nick McGeehan, founding member of human rights group Mafiwasta, set up in 2005 to bring to attention abuses of migrant workers in the Gulf.

Mafiwasta currently focuses on the UAE, but hopes to expand its work to other countries in the region in future.

Mafi is Arabic for ‘no’ or ‘none’, while ‘wasta’ connotes influence, connections or ‘who you know’. Migrant labourers are among those who lack ‘wasta’ in UAE society, with no connections to power and no protection offered to them by the state.

Mafiwasta was initially set up with the sole aim of raising awareness of the abuses of migrant labourers in the Gulf through the media, and served as a valuable reference point for journalists and researchers. However, after 2006 the organization galvanized into a lobbying group, and joined forces with the Irish-based Human Rights for Change to submit an official complaint to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Mafiwasta argued that the whole system of abuse of migrant workers was underpinned by the denial of trade unions, a position which it still holds today.

McGeehan first came to the UAE as an English teacher, and then worked with an oil company, which brought him into contact with the dire working and living conditions of migrant labourers. He is now studying for a PhD in law at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, on legal issues relating to the abuses of migrant labourers in the UAE. In his thesis, he argues that the labour system in the UAE is based on systematic racial discrimination, which is tantamount to enslavement in the worst cases.

The UAE has recently had its Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations. Has this done anything to highlight the abuses of migrant workers?

The UAE’s Universal Periodic Review by the UNHCR was widely received by the Gulf press as a glowing report on the state’s ‘positive’ progress in promoting human rights. But while the UN delegation praised the UAE for for improvements on children’s rights and for compensation for former child camel jockeys, the issue of workers’ rights was a cause for concern.

McGeehan explained that states that submit to the review are given three options when it comes to handling the individual recommendations of the Universal Periodic review; they can accept, consider or reject. The UAE accepted ‘non-binding’ recommendations, but has ‘rejected out of hand’ recommendations such as allowing foreign labourers to form trade unions or taking further steps to eliminate racial discrimination.

‘The UN Periodic Review is a useful mechanism for some states that already have a record on human rights’ McGeehan told Migrant Rights. However, he argues that the review is less likely to have an impact in states such as the UAE where there is not an active tradition of civil society or human rights documentation and protection.

Will the current global financial crisis make working conditions for migrants in the Gulf worse?

McGeehan told Migrant Rights that the current global financial crisis could leave migrant labourers more vulnerable to abuse by their employers, as construction companies tighten their budgets and consider pay cuts and layoffs. ‘Work’s going to go, contracts are not going to be borne out and there will be even less concern for workers conditions’ he said. There is also a risk that construction companies could fire workers without securing their repatriation, meaning that thousands could find themselves stranded in the UAE without enough money to get home – and without any legal protection. Repatriation is an expensive process for construction companies, and McGeehan says he fears that the companies will neglect their responsibilities to their workers as they hit stormier financial times. ‘The UAE is a legal no-man’s land for workers that need repatriation’ he said.

Can companies in the Gulf help the situation of migrant labourers through developing corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies?

A growing number of international companies are waking up to the UAE’s poor record on protecting workers rights, and are keen to do their bit to stop the abuse, and Mafiwasta is often approached by companies and individuals who want advice on how to protect human rights– and their reputations – when they do business in the UAE. ‘Western firms don’t do know what to do when it comes to CSR policy in the Gulf – they don’t know how to operate there’ said McGeehan ‘The labour system is completely unregulated, and conditions for construction workers are so bad that they fall well below any western company’s minimum standards’. McGeehan is skeptical about how much CSR can do to help migrant workers, as he believes that the culture of systematic abuse is not created by individual companies, but is the result of a government which resists reform and actively denies rights.

Visit Mafiwasta’s website for more information about their work – and for a detailed response to the UN Universal Periodic Review. Migrant Rights is very grateful to Nick McGeehan for this interview and wishes Mafiwasta all the best with their campaign to raise awareness of migrant worker abuse.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East