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UAE-Linked NGO Whitewashes Migrant Abuse

On August 8, 2014

This past year, the crackdown that resulted in the deportation of over a million migrants from Saudi Arabia, the mistreatment of Sa'adiyat Island construction workers in the UAE, and the spotlight on World Cup workers in Qatar has generated significant public criticism of migrant rights in the region. States responded to this intensified scrutiny primarily by intensifying propaganda and PR stunts, acquiescing to minor or illusory reforms and re-directing blame to other parties, rather than initiating essential structural changes.  While periodically relenting to the need for ‘some reforms,’ none of the states fully admit to the complicity of local migration policies in the trafficking, forced labor, and other systematic vulnerabilities facing migrant workers.

Yet the spotlight on these abuses seems to be a mounting source of anxiety for some of the Gulf regimes, as evidenced by recurrent declarations of their commitment to migrants’ rights.  These efforts occasionally manifest in the form of aggrandizing press conferences, such as with Qatar ‘s announcements of ‘Kafala reform’ in May.  Other times, they are more furtive – and more convincing - as with the UAE’s recent efforts to combat international criticism.

The International Gulf Organization (IGO) is a Geneva-based NGO with a "branch in Dubai." The NGO's president,Mansoor Essa Lootah, is an Emirati citizen and member of the Ahly Dubai Football Club. Others affiliated with the NGO also seem rather friendly with the UAE regime.

The NGO was founded in 2012 but garnered attention for its production of a dubious ‘documentary’ that attempted to prove the fairness of the UAE’s political trials of Islamists – in which some of those tried were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for merely criticizing the regime in public (though their charges were inflated to conspiracy with Egypt’s formal Islamic regime). The documentary, directed by an employee in Abu Dhabi T.V.,  clashed with documented accounts of torture, humiliation, sleep-deprivation, as well as the denial of visitation rights and access to representation. The government-run National Media Council invited journalists to a viewing of the documentary in Dubai, though the NGO claimed to have funded the documentary independently, without state help.  In a statement released prior the screening, IGO’s Lootah claimed  “We have only revealed the truth because only the truth can refute all slander, allegations and falsehood,” – parroting the same defensive language the UAE regularly brandishes in response to international criticism.  (Here is a link to a short report on the pre-screening event and a link to the full documentary).

More recently, IGO released a policy report entitled "Domestic Work Legislation in the GCC." The 13-page document summarizes but also misrepresents the situation of domestic workers across the GCC; first, the report claims that the rise in the region’s recruitment of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) owes to the increased employment of female citizens. Such descriptions may account for the growing size of care industries elsewhere in the world, but rates of female employment in the Gulf do not support this claim. Rather, the new standards of post-oil society lifestyles largely accounts for the increased demand for domestic workers. The very high rates of domestic worker employment – over 90% of households in the UAE and Kuwait (with 42% and 47% female labor participation rate, respectively) –  evidence that the employment of domestic workers is a norm in most of the region. Even poorer families are likely to employ a domestic worker. One reason GCC states are resistant to domestic worker reform is because more regulations would likely entail the increased costs,  ‘denying’ some citizens the ability to employ domestic help. Gulf governments rely, in different degrees, on a social pact with citizens, providing them with comfortable lifestyles in exchange for political submission. The domestic work sector is under-regulated globally, but this contract is important to contextualizing the peculiar challenges facing reform in the region.

Second, the report classifies the six GCC states into problematic categories of “responsiveness” to domestic worker rights; "most responsive," (Kuwait, KSA, Bahrain) "relatively responsive," (UAE and Qatar) and "least responsive" (Oman). The report uncritically measures each country's attentiveness to MDW issues by proposed, drafted, laws as well pending bilateral agreements – that is, many items that have not yet been legislated or implemented, or as in one case, not even public.  The report acknowledges these limitations yet still assert the usefulness of this metric. There is merit in identifying and comparing  legal frameworks, but the absence of any critical analysis of their actual content or implementation reads as (cunning) apologia rather than a legitimate foundation for an NGO’s policy recommendations.

For example, the report states that according to a new drafted law, the Kafala system will see an end in Kuwait – despite the fact that Kuwait has promised an end to the Kafala system for years now, without any substantive movement to do so. Similarly, the report cites the UAE's 2012 law regulating working hours for domestic workers as an indicator of progress although two years later, it is still pending approval and still has not been publicly released.

In another section of the report, IGO examines international conventions as a promising framework for improving the condition of the Gulf’s migrants. The report claims that GCC countries support the ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers though "they have yet to ratify it similar to other major developed countries, including the United States and Other Asian and European Countries." This ‘support’ may reference the GCC’s tripartite vote in favor of  C189 in 2012. But subsequently, support for the convention has largely evaporated; GCC officials repeatedly reject key elements of C189 in proposed laws and bilateral agreements, as well as in the regions’ latest draft of the unified contract for domestic workers. The absence of meaningful support for C189 was apparent in the same year of its ratification, when at a regional conference (requested by the UAE),  Dr Mondkher Al-Khoor, First Director of the Labour Market, Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Bahrain, acknowledged the advantages of ratifying C189 while simultaneously arguing the cultural incompatibility of some of its provisions:

“Furthermore, Dr Al-Khoor shared his concern with the participants stating that despite the amendment, by some countries, of national laws in accordance with some of the provisions of C189, the convention includes provisions which are difficult to apply in the context of the Arab region given its cultural and social particularities. An example of these provisions is granting domestic workers the right to go out of the household during her weekly day of rest and the possibility of conducting inspections inside the household. Dr Al-Khoor went on to say that Convention No. 189 was the product of a lengthy political process that required a number of compromises to be made on behalf of countries of origin and destination across the world. A number of its provisions may apply to some but not to other countries. This is because the legislation and challenges facing domestic workers across ILO member states are quite disparate. As such, a number of Arab countries may find the ratification process unattainable. “

While Bahrain has since made arguably more progress than other GCC countries in improving MDW rights, similar government statements against key protections for MDWs remain prolific throughout the region – the term ‘support’ can hardly describe their attitudes.

Regional progress in the sphere of domestic worker rights cannot be elided with support for the convention itself. That many countries have yet to ratify C189 does not absolve Gulf countries from their violations of the convention’s provisions.

Additionally, the report analyzes compliances with other selected international conventions but ignores two of the most critical conventions relevant to MDWs. This includes the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW), which of none the states have ratified. The report also excludes mention of the ILO's Private Employment Agencies convention, which again none of the GCC states have ratified despite the critical impact of recruitment agency practices on the well being of migrant domestic workers.

The report includes a special focus on Qatar citing “delayed and refused wages, lack of weekly rest days, confiscation of documents and mobile phones, and physical and sexual abuse" – violations prolific in all GCC countries, rather than exclusive to Qatar.  The failure to note the parallels with other GCC states is strange, given the professed scope of this comparative policy review (and perhaps related to the UAE’s current spat with Qatar).

Furthermore, the report echoes the rhetoric GCC countries (outwardly and internally) employ to justify stagnant migrant worker conditions. In the section entitled "Explaining GCC Governments’ Regulatory Resistance," the report cites the culpability of local cultural norms in the lack of policy reform, holding that “GCC nationals felt their private family information must be protected,” creating “a cultural resistance to developing formal regulations in the GCC domestic work sector.” The report does not contend that these ‘cultural obstacles’ are largely dramatized and perpetuated by Gulf authorities for the very purpose of impeding reform or that few of the regulations that would improve MDW worker rights would necessitate any compromise of citizens’ privacy. The report does not offer potential resolutions to this purported societal resistance, which could include the legalization of part-time domestic workers who do not lives in their employer’s houses, consequently resolving any conflict between the private home and the regulation of domestic works (while also satisfying a prolific economic demand largely relegated to the black market.)

If there is societal resistance, it is primarily resistance to the increasing cost of employing a domestic worker that is associated with improving their rights, not only in increased wages and better working conditions, but in extra fees to recruiters or administrations too offset the cost of translated work contracts and training sessions. The rising cost of domestic work is a recurring complaint by GCC citizens, and mismanagement of the sector often incurs government criticism.  There may also be a resistance to granting workers rights based on employer’s perceptions of ownership, which would be undermined by formalizing the employment relationship. This sense of ownership, in which the worker is a servant at the disposal and mercy of the employer, is directly tied to policies that require domestic workers to live in their employer’s home and work for a single sponsor who controls their legal residency (a policy beginning to change in some GCC states). Consequently, societal resistance is still linked to Gulf migration systems.

The report further states “some countries view domestic workers as part of the family, and therefore ought to fall outside the labor law framework,” uncritically regurgitating governments’ justifications for the lack of regulation rather than identifying the actual factors impeding MDW reform. Similar to the platitudes that migrant workers are “our guests,” such a hollow claim is only used to circumvent obligations to migrant labor reforms.

The report claims that some respondents believe those who “prioritize other immediate internal security or economic issues (i.e. rising local unemployment, weak institutional capacity, resources)" unwittingly impede reform.  This perspective belongs to a wider narrative falsely holding that rights for migrant domestic workers necessarily conflicts with the interests of the state and of citizens. Again, the report mechanically reproduces a migration myth without commentary or challenge.

The report parrots yet another official stock phrase:

“Third, some respondents noted that formalizing the required regulatory framework for domestic workers might require exceptional institutional capacity; therefore, they claim that they need more time to further develop their existing institutions and policies before fully regulating the domestic work sector.”

The argument that “more institutional capacity” and “more time” and “more studies” is needed is also used to evade Kafala and other migrant labor reforms.  Meaningful reform is rarely implemented overnight, but this does not prevent GCC states from implementing incremental reforms to protect MDW rights.  The report suggests that the extra-wealthy states capable of monitoring its own private citizens is somehow institutionally incapable of protecting the rights of domestic workers – a feat that several less developed states have succeeded in improving since their ratifications of C189.

Repeatedly, the report seems to conflate the lack of implementation capacity with the lack of will for implementation. Governments’ desire to perpetuate a poorly regulated domestic worker market is precisely the reason for its under regulation. The report noted elsewhere that “incoherent national and international labor regulatory framework for domestic workers has not only reduced institutional effectiveness, but also undermined its market stability,” somehow displacing these ‘incoherencies’ from GCC efforts to minimize domestic worker wages and explicitly exclude them from national labor laws (with the recent exception of Bahrain).

The UAE’s weak commitment to reform is evident in its persistent efforts to distort the narrative on human rights issues. Sarah Leah Witson, HRW director for the Middle East, tweeted last year:

It’s true that policy reports often endeavor for diplomatic rhetoric, and indeed at first glance this review seems to provide a neutral account of MDW issues in the Gulf.  But deeper inspection reveals a subtle manipulation of the facts to moderate the GCC's hostility towards domestic worker reform. The report’s timid critiques, limited scope, and preponderance of slanted-truths are rendered all the more suspicious by the organization’s past work.

One of IGO’s professed objectives is to “critically explores complex labor rights issues in the GCC region…” yet this report fails to distinguish between governments' grandstanding and on-the-ground realities, merely regurgitating GCC talking points without substantive analysis.

Gulf Labor Markets and Migration offers a more comprehensive, more scrutinizing report on the GCC’s domestic worker policies available for downloaded here.