British CSR consultancy Maplecroft has released a report (Human Rights Briefing - Labour Rights in the Middle East) highlighting poor labour standards in the Middle East. The report deals with issues affecting both local and migrant workers, including forced labour, sexual abuse and dangerous working conditions.
Not surprisingly, Iraq tops their list of the highest-risk countries for workers, due to dangerous working conditions, absence of minimum wage and anti-union discrimination. Iraq and Saudia Arabia rank jointly as the most dangerous countries in the world for female workers.
All countries in the Middle East, apart from Tunisia, Algeria and Israel are classified as 'extreme risk' countries for workers, according to the report. For example, migrant workers in Qatar are routinely deported if they test positive for HIV/AIDS in compulsory medical tests, while maids in the Gulf country are frequently subjected to sexual abuse and violence by their employers.
The report should be a helpful resource for companies who want to understand the uncomfortable reality of human rights abuses of workers in the region. However, what the Maplecroft's report says in statistics, rankings and risk maps has been common knowledge in the Middle East for many years. For example, most people working in the Gulf States - both expats and locals- realise that the region's extraordinary construction boom has been enabled by cheap migrant labour in dangerous and exploitative conditions. But it's just more comfortable for most people to turn blind eyes to the issue and to be resigned to the conclusion that 'that's just how things are here'. Now the corporate world's interest in CSR is growing, as companies increasingly want to send out a message to the world that they do not support human rights abuses in any aspect of their business. The fact that companies such as Maplecroft sell such reports is proof of this. However, as far as M-R.org is aware, no companies have made a concrete effort to stop exploitative practices in the Middle East, especially not in the Gulf. For example, not a single real estate or construction firm has to publically condemned exploitation of labourers or taken any steps to improve their conditions.
Perhaps the culture of exploitation and abuse of workers is so ingrained in Middle Eastern countries that it will take some time for international corporations to internalise the message of reports such as Maplecroft's and to take action to minimise human rights abuses.
For more information about human rights issues and the corporate world, visit the website of Business and Human Rights, an organisation which tracks the positive and negative effects of over 4000 companies accross the world. They have a wide variety of links to stories on the Middle East and North Africa here.