Despite the Gulf Cooperation Council’s promise to "…support the ILO's interest in this issue, which represents one of our four strategic pillars” just last week, every GCC government representative abstained from the recent vote on the Protocol to the ILO Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (C29). The successfully adopted Protocol includes new obligations to prevent forced labor and requires ratifying countries to protect its victims, to ensure their access to remedy and compensation, and to punish perpetrators. The Protocol modernizes C29 to address contemporary forms of forced labour, including unscrupulous recruitment practices and labour trafficking.
As the ILO is a tripartite organization composed of governments, employers, and workers, states are allowed four delegations, each with an independent vote: two representing the government, one representing employers, and one representing workers. Saudi and Bahrain’s worker delegations were the only representatives to vote in favor of the Protocol. The distribution of other votes is listed in the table below:
Despite voting against the Protocol, all GCC states have ratified the convention and are still legally bound to the instrument. The Protocol endeavors to improve implementation gaps in the areas of prevention, protection, and compensation measures. It provides a new benchmark upon which to measure the migration and labour reforms taking places across the GCC, where under-regulated recruiters, constraints on employment mobility and minimal access to redress mechanisms systematically enables forced labor. Last year, GCC states were largely dismissive of the ILO’s report on forced labour in the region. The UAE was especially vehement in denying that structural factors, including those within the Kafala system, result in forced labor conditions.
In the larger MENA region, forced labour generates $8.5 billion USD annually, about $15,000 per victim. Globally, forced labor generates $150 billion in illegal profits from the exploitation of 21 million people. The majority of these people are migrants, and over half are women and girls in domestic work or commercial sexual exploitation. Men and boys are primarily in forced economic exploitation in agriculture, construction, and mining.
Other government delegations in the region including Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Iraq did vote in favor of the Protocol. Yemeni and Iranian government delegations abstained from the vote.
Gulf labor expert Aakash Jayaprakash (@Aakash_Jay) attended the historic voting session and reflected on the Protocol’s potential impact to labor conditions in the GCC and elsewhere:
International conventions and treaties are usually only binding upon the ratification of these treaties, wherein governments pass national laws of the same. Without ratification, governments may support or vote in favour of international conventions but in reality is meaningless. While the ILO can pass international conventions and protocols, the enforcement ability of the organisation is quite limited and contingent on national and sovereign implementation. The pathways for taking these issues more seriously have been created yesterday at the United Nations in Geneva. Forced labour is unfortunately a reality that exists across the world, where few individuals are able to make large profits from the work of many. I am quite hopeful that we as a society whether in Qatar, India, Mexico or Italy have the courage to make difficult decisions to protect people better.