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New HRW Report Slams Gulf States for Migrant Abuses

On January 26, 2010

Human Rights Watch's World Report 2010 is out now, and strongly condemns the Gulf states for failing to protect the rights of Migrant Workers. The full report is available here.

The HRW report raises the issues of passport confiscation, abuses of domestic workers and bans on trade unions as key issues in the region. Bahrain and Kuwait have taken steps towards removing the kafala system, which ties the right of a migrant to remain in the country to the permission of his sponsor. However, a disturbing finding is that migrant domestic workers are excluded from the new legislation. This is particularly concerning to given the spate of suicides and attempted suicides by distressed maids working in the region in recent months (see here and here)

Here are some extracts:


In May 2009 Minister of Labor Majeed al-Alawi announced a proposed revision to Bahrain’s kafala (sponsorship) system designed to reduce the risk ofexploitation and abuse of migrant workers. The former system tied migrants’ work visas and immigration status to their employers, enabling employer abuses and preventing workers from changing jobs or leaving the country. Under the amended law, which was adopted on August 1, the government officially sponsors each worker, allowing him or her to more easily change employers. At this writing it remains unclear whether the reform has been fully implemented. Bahrain’s business
community strongly opposed the changes, and workers still need the defacto sponsorship of an individual or company in order to remain in the country legally. Migrant workers complain that some employers illegally withhold passports and fail to pay wages.

The amended law excludes migrant domestic workers, who are at especially high risk of abuse due to their isolation in private homes. In 2009 prominent cases involved physical abuse, forced confinement, and the death of domestic workers.


Parliament in May 2009 debated a draft revision of the Labor Law that would incorporate more protective provisions on wages, working hours, and safety. However, it does not establish monitoring mechanisms for workers’ rights, and continues to exclude domestic workers from its protections. Approximately 700,000 migrant women—chiefly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines—are employed in Kuwait as full-time live-in domestic workers. Their exclusion under the current labor law deprives them of protections afforded other workers, such as a weekly rest day and limits on working hours. Many domestic workers complain of confinement in the house, long working hours without rest, months or years of unpaid wages, and sometimes verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Domestic workers who fled abusive situations at their workplace have often become stranded at their embassies, at deportation centers, or
at recruitment agencies. In October 2009 Indonesia banned further migration of domestic workers to Kuwait in response to having 600 workers trapped in its embassy. A major barrier to the redress of labor abuses is the sponsorship (kafala) system by which a migrant worker’s legal residence in Kuwait is tied to his or her employer, who serves as a “sponsor.” Migrant workers can only transfer employmentwith their sponsor’s consent, although a reform in August 2009 frees them of this requirement if they have worked more than three years (migrant domestic workers do not benefit from this provision). Sponsorship traps workers in abusive situations,
including in situations of forced labor, and blocks their access to means of redress. If an employer withdraws sponsorship, workers who flee abusive workplaces can be arrested and deported for being out of status in the country. Kuwaiti law enforcement officials rarely bring to justice Kuwaitis who abuse their powers as sponsors.

Saudi Arabia

An estimated eight million largely Asian and Arab foreign workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs. Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes rising to slavery-like conditions. A new anti-trafficking law passed in July set prison sentences of up to 15 years for forced labor. However, Saudi Arabia made little progress reforming the restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system that
ties migrant workers’ residency permits to their employers, fueling abuses such as employers confiscating passports, withholding wages, and forcing migrants to work against their will.

In July 2009 the advisory Shura Council extended some labor protections to the 1.5 million migrant domestic workers, but excluded the right of workers to leave the house or keep their passports, and obliges them to obey the employers. Asian embassies report thousands of complaints each year from domestic workers forced to work 15-20 hours a day, seven days a week, and denied their
salaries. Domestic workers frequently endure forced confinement, food deprivation, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.

Migrants sometimes face severe delays in the immigration and justice systems, and obstacles such as lack of access to interpreters, legal aid, or their consulates. Few migrants successfully pursue criminal cases against abusive employers. Following a dispute with his sponsor, officials on October 26 detained pending deportation Usama Hijazi, an Egyptian legal adviser living in Saudi Arabia for 16
years. Hijazi had just won a court ruling in his favor against his sponsor, granting him 155,000 riyal (US$41,000) and allowing him to transfer his sponsorship. Authorities repatriated Keni binti Carda, an Indonesian domestic worker, in late 2008 before she could formally complain about her employers causing her severe burns and prying out her teeth. She returned to Riyadh to press charges, but as of
November 2009 criminal proceedings had yet to begin. In August Saudi morality police raided a shelter run by a Filipino support group, though prosecutors later dropped charges against 18 persons present.


Many female domestic workers are subjected to unpaid wages, food deprivation, forced confinement, and physical or sexual abuse. In August 2009 the Philippines government paid to fly home 44 Filipinas who had been living for months at a shelter. The women were among 127 Filipinas, mostly housemaids, who fled their workplace after complaining of mistreatment, long working hours, insufficient
food, and nonpayment of salaries. The standard contract for domestic workers introduced in April 2007 provides some protections and calls for “adequate breaks,” but does not limit working hours or provide for a weekly rest day, overtime pay, or workers’ compensation.
Exploitation of migrant workers by construction companies across the country is also severe: abuses include maintaining unsafe working environments that contribute to avoidable illness or deaths, and withholding workers’ travel documents. On August 31, 2009, police and labor officials quickly dispersed a demonstration over low wages by as many as 2,000 striking migrant workers employed by construction
and engineering company Al Habtoor in Dubai. A Ministry of Labor investigation into the strike cleared the company of any wrongdoing after determining it had not broken any rules regarding pay.

The report also mentions the case of UAE royal family member Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan who is still yet to be charged for torturing an Afghan migrant. Disturbing video footage of Al Nahyan whipping, beating and finally running over the man with his car in the desert was leaked in 2009.