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With 22 million migrant workers, GCC societies face tremendous challenges: ILO

On December 19, 2014

In a Q & A with Migrant-Rights.Org, ILO Senior Migration Specialist for the Arab States Hans van de Glind discusses the challenges faced by both migrant workers and countries in the GCC.

Can you give us an idea the kind of progress made with the GCC & MENA in the last five years? In what areas did ILO consult or collaborate, and do you see a change in improved practices?

In responding, let me focus on the GCC: According to UNDESA statistics, GCC countries hosted a staggering stock of over 22 million migrant workers in 2013, and this number has grown by 5 million compared to the year 2010. This results in tremendous challenges on national labour markets, and to societies at large in GCC countries.

Photo HansWhile migration is an opportunity for many, concerns have been expressed in a range of reports and media with regards to working conditions of in particular low skilled migrant workers across Gulf states, along with flawed recruitment practices in countries of origin.

These reports point in particular at the unequal relationship between migrant workers and employers, where the former is effectively under the control of the latter through a sponsorship system which restricts mobility of migrant workers on the labour market, and which provides employers control over contract termination and exit visas. Despite challenges, ILO has engaged with governments in the region, and we believe that these efforts contributed to the claimed partial reform of the sponsorship system so far pilot tested by Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia. The status of these reforms is not always clear however, and a robust evidence base is lacking in terms of the impact of these changes, pointing to the need for transparency in amending rules and regulations, and evidence-based monitoring of the impact of reforms.

“Information technology – such as crowdsourcing – holds promise as a way to engage workers and the public at large in reporting on migrant worker abuse.”

We know that ILO has been trying to build capacities in terms of labour inspection. What are the key issues according to you (if you can give a state by state analysis), and what is your advice?

Where labour laws are enforced routinely, one does not tend to find abuse of workers, including migrant workers.

In order to protect the rights of migrant workers it is therefore important that migrant intensive sectors, such as construction and domestic work, are covered by labour law (or other laws), and that these laws are actively enforced.

Such active enforcement can only happen if labour inspectorates are well resourced and equipped, including through training, and well informed on worker’s situations through effective hotlines, and other reporting and complaints mechanisms. As a way forward, information technology–such as crowdsourcing–holds promise as a way to engage workers and the public at large in reporting on migrant worker abuse.

The long awaited GCC common contract for domestic workers has been tabled again. Your thoughts on that? Do you think this contract does enough to protect right of domestic workers?

Standard written contracts can be a promising way forward to ensuring basic workers’ rights. ILO Convention 189, Art. 7 prescribes a series of necessary contract conditions including: start date and duration, probation period and terms and conditions related to termination of employment including a reasonable notice period; type of work to be performed; remuneration and secondary benefits; working hours, paid annual leave, and daily and weekly rest periods; terms of repatriation.

Any contract for domestic workers would be more effective in terms of protection offered if the entire domestic work sector was covered by labour law (or other laws) and enforcement practice.

One issue that needs addressing is contract substitution where the contract offered prior to departure is replaced, upon arrival at destination, with a contract with different conditions. Again, capitalizing on modern information technology, countries should work together towards the issuance of coordinated electronic contracts at origin, by certified employers and placement agencies at destination.

“To prevent a race to the bottom in terms of deteriorating working conditions, it is of the utmost importance that countries of origin form a pact in terms of minimum acceptable working conditions for their out-migrants.”

The power equation between sending (mainly South and South East Asia) and receiving (GCC) countries continue to be skewed. How can the former better assert itself? What are your recommendations on this?

ILO recently launched its Fair Migration Agenda, which is all about decent working conditions for migrant workers, and a fair sharing of the prosperity that migrants help to create. It means building migration regimes which respond equitably to the interests of countries of origin and destination, and to migrant, employers and nationals, and in which the net benefits of migration are more evenly distributed.

While millions of Asian migrant workers have found employment in Gulf states, the consensus among scholars and practitioners is that governments of origin and destination countries have not yet developed a system that equitably shares migration benefits among employers, intermediaries and workers.

Unemployment and poverty in countries of origin (mainly in Asia), combined with tremendous population pressure, results in millions of candidate migrant workers for many years to come. To prevent a race to the bottom in terms of deteriorating working conditions, it is of the utmost importance that countries of origin form a pact in terms of minimum acceptable working conditions for their out-migrants.

While progress can be made in terms of working conditions at destination, it is becoming increasingly clear that many migrants, in particular low skilled migrants, build up heavy debt in the recruitment process prior to departure. A vast machinery of agents, sub-agents, training organizations, visa providers, and money lenders (who often lend at exorbitant interest rates) results in a tremendous risk of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers prior to departure. That in turn, makes these migrants extra vulnerable to further exploitation upon arrival at destination.

Speaking of the above, recruitment reforms in sending countries seem to be slow or non-existent, give us an idea on what ILO does there to improve this.

ILO participated in the recently held Abu Dhabi Dialogue (amongst countries of migrants’ origin and destination) in Kuwait on 26-27 November 2014. The Declaration adopted at the meeting states amongst others that the delegates ‘welcome ILO’s proposal to engage with Abu Dhabi Dialogue member governments to assist in reducing labour mobility costs, preventing abuse in the recruitment process, protecting workers’ rights, improving regulation and strengthening oversight of private recruitment and placement agencies, guided by its Fair Recruitment Initiative within the broader framework of its Fair Migration Agenda’. This now offers a framework to work towards more efficient and fair recruitment modalities for migrant workers. Forthcoming initiatives are planned to be focused on harmonization of recruitment regulations in countries of origin and destination, improved monitoring of recruitment agencies, more efficient matching of migrant workers and employers, reducing the number of layers of intermediation, and creating transparency in recruitment costs.