On the Globe & Mail’s Optimistic Report about Migrant Rights in the Gulf

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Aug 10 2010

The Globe and Mail published a report today about migrant rights in the Gulf region. While we welcome the attention the issue of migrant workers' rights received by such a widely-read publication, it is important to challenge the narrative of the story that attempts to show how attitudes toward migrant workers are changing in the Gulf, and the problem is that enforcement of the new laws and awareness of the new rights is lacking.

Laws without enforcement are in many cases worse than the lack of protective laws because the existence of the laws allows regional regimes to avoid criticism and pressure without actually doing much to improve the conditions of workers. For example, the report states that Bahrain's labor law "also mandates that every worker is entitled to a contract that specifies pay, duties and a required notice period." But what is the use of such contracts if according to a study by Bahrain's government, "65% of migrant workers had not seen their employment contract, and 89% were unaware of their terms of employment upon arrival in Bahrain"?

The Bahraini labor laws that the article praises as a model for the rest of the region exclude domestic workers from their protection. Migrant workers are also not entitled to minimum wage in Bahrain, because the regime is worried that this will hurt Bahrain's competitiveness in the region, which is based on cheap labor.

Several times, the report omits important information about the supposed positive changes in labor laws. It claims that "Along with establishing a minimum wage, Kuwait announced in April that domestic workers will be allowed to look for work in other sectors of the economy without having to get a new work visa." First, Kuwait's announcement in April about the minimum wage excluded domestic workers, which isn't clear from the report. Second, the conditions for this transfer from a domestic worker visa (no. 20) to a private sector visa (no. 18) ensure that workers cannot leave their sponsor or recruitment agency. The conditions for changing employers for migrant workers other than housemaids are also very demanding: workers have to complete three years of continuous work for one employer and can then switch jobs at the end of their contract period, as Human Rights Watch detailed. These pathetic changes allowed Kuwait to get positive press reports, without doing much to help workers. Currently, with accordance to Kuwait's sponsorship system, any worker who leaves their employer before their contract ends is considered a criminal, an absconder, even if they fled their workplace due to abuse.

The report briefly recounts the abuse many workers suffer in the Gulf like contract alteration, passport confiscation, nonpayment of wages and abuse, but at the same time accepts the narrative that the changes in the region's labor laws are a genuine shift in attitude. In reality, workers are treated as imported commodities intended for a short-term use. We commend Bahrain for partially abolishing the sponsorship system and Kuwait for instituting minimum wage for workers other than housemaids, but lack of enforcement and knowledge of workers makes these and other changes void. The result is that on paper a country appears to be upholding human rights, while away from the limelight millions of migrant workers continue to suffer.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East