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Overview: ILO Report on Human Trafficking in the Middle East

On April 12, 2013

[ILO's Arabic summary available here]

The ILO’s First Regional Conference on Human Trafficking in the Arab Region concluded Wednesday, in Amman, Jordan. The conference and accompanying report discussed the concurrence of human trafficking and forced labour of migrant workers, and recommended a number of practices to improve anti-trafficking efforts as well as the wider migration system. The report focused on the prevalence of forced labour in domestic work, the sex industry, and intensive labour occupations including agriculture, fishing, construction and animal herding. Field interviews were conducted in Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and the UAE, but interviewees included migrants and nationals from across Middle East, as well as individuals based in origin countries.

The ILO estimates that 600,000 migrant workers - 3.4 in every 1,000 of the regions inhabitants - are compelled to work against their free choice. Though other regions including Central and Southeastern Europe experience much greater rates of forced labor, the Arab region’s vast scale of migration in conjunction with the inherently exploitative nature of the sponsorship uniquely and systematically fosters forced labour situations.

Specifically, the ILO noted the that following facets and consequences of the sponsorship system entrench forced labour situations:

  • Legal responsibility for the residency and employment of domestic workers, as well as the money invested in their recruitment, justifies the retention of passports and confinement in the home (For example, a Saudi Gazette op-ed penned by an employer conveys this sentiment)
  • Companies and employers in construction and architectural sectors particularly tend to hire workers already in the country with irregular migration status in order to circumvent high recruitment costs, encouraging an informal labour market (See complicity of employers in pursuing undocumented migrants here).
  • Sponsors recruit for non-existent jobs and generate sizable profits by auctioning off workers visas to the highest bidder. The worker is stranded, in debt, with no job and is forced to look for irregular work. (For example, see report 700 stranded Pakistani migrant workers here and 100 stranded workers in Oman here.)
  • The sponsorship system itself is embedded in the specific indicators used to determine trafficking and forced labor incidents. These indicators varied slightly between the assessed occupations, but in general included:

    1. Recruitment by deception - can include deception regarding the nature or conditions of work, and be intentionally or unintentionally exacted by recruitment agents, family, friends, or employers. Deceptive recruitment also includes the recruitment of individuals for non-existent jobs.

    For example, domestic workers are often unaware that their responsibilities may include nannying in addition to looking after the house, and are overwhelmed by their employers' unrealistic expectations. The toll taken on workers can be extreme - last December, a domestic worker in Kuwait committed suicide after her sponsor berated her for neglecting her children.

    2. Work and life under duress - can include forced overtime, limited freedom of movement, degrading living and working conditions, denunciation to authorities, physical, psychological threats or violence, confinement, constant surveillance, lack of rest periods, isolation, and restrictions on communication.

    For example, domestic workers are regularly confined to their employer’s residents, do not enjoy rest days, and work over 10 hours a day. Labourers often endure hazardous living conditions, with several men sharing a single room that lacks basic amenities; In Bahrain, numerous labor camp fires have taken the lives of migrant workers. Unsafe working conditions, particularly with building scaffolding, are also prevalent throughout the region. HRW’s report on the UAE’s ‘Saadiyat’ islands documents the pervasiveness of unsafe or otherwise difficult working conditions even amongst major, conspicuous projects.

    3. Inability to leave employer (due to threat or penalty) - includes consequences and facets of the sponsorship system, such as the inability to change employers, sponsor’s ability to refuse the release of workers or charge high release fees, as well as sponsor’s ability to withhold wages and personal travel documents to prevent workers from running away. Exorbitant and illegal recruitment fees can also prevent indebted migrants from leaving unfavorable employment situations.

    Individual sponsors and numerous leading firms continue to confiscate employees’ documents to “protect” their investment from leaving the country or escaping to another employer. In a recent case disclosed to Migrant Rights, a sponsor required her domestic worker to pay 600 dirhams for her release to another employer, and thereafter prevented the worker from obtaining other employment. The worker escaped to her agency, but was told to return because her employ was rich, and because her embassy would not intervene on her behalf. The worker remains in limbo in a Dubai-based recruitment agency, with no security for remuneration or for future employment.

    The ILO also noted a number of other regional patterns that enable trafficking and forced labour conditions:

  • Corruption amongst government officials
  • Lax immigration
  • Lack of policy coherence between sending and origin countries regarding deployment bans, employment contracts, and the operations of recruitment agencies
  • Lack of substantive monitoring of recruitment agencies and the prevalence of informal or illegal recruitment/private employment agencies
  • Paucity of labor protections for migrant workers in low-skill sectors, which impede the ability of migrants to change employers or to terminate contracts without risking deportation
  • Where legal protections do exist, the inability for migrants to access courts because of financial or geographic constraints renders redress difficult
  • The ILO’s recommendations to regional governments and service providers included:

  • Implementing and enforcing policies that ensure recruitment practices are free from debt bondage, excessive recruitment fees and other forms of deceptions and coercion
  • Considering alternatives to the sponsorship system, which would encompass the preeminent role of labor ministries in overseeing recruitment processes, handling complaints by migrants and employers, and verifying allegations of mistreatments. (Currently, mechanisms to report complaints differentiate throughout the region. In most cases, recruitment agencies handle complaints for the first few months of service, and thereafter may be required to report complaints to a government authority. Unfortunately, recruitment agencies can take advantage of these situations by forcing workers to remain with their employer, or by “purchasing” employees - charging employers high rates to “buy” back employees and transfer their sponsorship to another employee, literally profiting from exploitation.)
  • Expanding legal coverage for vulnerable groups, such as domestic and agricultural workers who are excluded from labour laws in much of the region, or otherwise do not benefit from the same rights as national workers.
  • Revising standard employment contracts to conform them more closely with international standards. The ILO specifically indicated the opportunity for the GCC’s draft Unified Contract for Domestic Workers to meet provisions in the ILO’s Convention No. 189 and accompanying recommendations No. 201
  • Setting sectoral minimum wages for vulnerable workers, that do not discriminate between nationals and migrant workers or among migrant worker nationalities. Furthermore, a standard minimum wage across all sectors would prevent certain work, such as domestic work, from being devalued as well as reduce competition between labor sending countries
  • Improving prevention mechanisms:

  • Improving quantitative studies on the scale and prevalence of human trafficking to better target interventions
  • Reducing the vulnerability of groups at risk for forced labour by improving recruitment systems, monitoring recruitment agencies, strengthening the legislative framework and providing more training for workers. In order to formalize the recruitment process and harmonize standards between origin and destination countries, the ILO also suggests creating a standardized system of licensing or certification for employment agencies based on the provisions of the ILO Private Employment Agencies Convention No. 181
  • Establishing joint liability clauses to hold recruitment agents in origin and sending countries accountable
  • Establishing legal aid clinics to provide pro-bono legal support to migrant workers, in order to render litigation and conviction possible
  • Considering alternatives to private recruitment agencies, such as cooperatives for migrant workers
  • Legislating non-punishment provisions that enable victims to be exempted from penalties for involvement in unlawful activities to the extent that their involvement was compelled

    Increasing efficiency of labor inspectorates by:

  • Developing and improving labor administration capacities in order to take substantive action before situations degenerate into forced labor. Adequate human and material resources are necessary to cover whole of national territories and remote areas.
  • Ensuring the training and protection of workers in hazardous occupations including construction, fishing, and agriculture
  • Providing for inspection visits to homes while respecting inviolability of the home
  • Ensuring victims have access to justice and compensation
  • Affording victims special protections or temporary residence permits (In many cases, victims of exploitation are merely deported and are unable to obtain compensation or even remuneration for services rendered
  • Rendering authorities liable to sanctions if they fail to follow up on allegations brought to their attention
  • Establishing a state fund or strengthening provisions in anti-trafficking laws to recover compensation from offenders
  • Strengthening workers and employers alliance against forced labour and trafficking through the empowerment of workers and employment organizations
  • [Download the ILO's full report here.]

    The participation of over 100 delegates from the Arab region may indicate that some foundation and inclination for substantive reform to the migration system and to anti-trafficking laws does exist. Over the past years, the ILO’s collaboration with Jordan and Lebanon has procured tangible gains for migrant workers; the prospect for technical expertise to continue assisting these nations and the wider Mideast is a promising sign for the future of migrant rights.