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Where are the voices of workers?

On July 18, 2020

The Abu Dhabi Dialogue recently held a consultation that highlighted the voices of youth, policymakers and representatives from around the world to tackle issues of labour migration issues in the Middle East. The three-day discussion also served as the regional consultations for the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), which will take place in January 2021 in Dubai. 

 The themes under discussion included:

  1. The governance of labour migration in the context of changing employment landscape’
  2. Leveraging technology to empower migrants,
  3. Fostering partnerships to realize migration-related goals in the Sustainable Development Agenda and managing the future of human mobility. 

My reflection focuses on governance, as the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the many systemic flaws that governments have long ignored and which have adversely impacted migrants across the region. The four main issues participants identified were discrimination, food and security, inadequate wages and overcrowded living conditions.

To address these issues, it is crucial for governments to rethink their governance approaches by investing in fair labour migration frameworks and ensuring policy coherence. This is achievable only by strengthening migration, training and employment policies. Discussions from the opening plenary, in particular, emphasised the need for recruitment alternatives that are practical and considerate of the following questions:  

  1.     How do we optimise data sharing and processing? 
  2.     How do we reduce the cost of recruitment? 
  3.     How do we foster human-centric approaches to migration?  

As a result of the pandemic, and with many migrant workers being repatriated, governments are now looking for new ways to manage the labour market, including reserving jobs for nationals while meeting industry needs for employees with diverse skill sets. This calls for a more critical study of discriminatory quota policies and, incentivising migration pathways that attract skilled workers. 

But what constitutes skills and who are the skilled? There need to be opportunities for workers to “upgrade” their status based on years of experience and skills development – therefore allowing those who were once labelled as “unskilled”  to have their experience recognised which eventually results in greater job opportunities. 

Participants also highlighted the critical need for engagement between employers and governments, calling for employers’ input in migration policies, as the worry was that without their engagement, there will always be gaps in governance. 

While concerns of stakeholders should be taken into consideration, governments should be cautious about not allowing profits and bottom lines to dictate migration policies. The approach should be rights-based and centre around the obligations of states as a duty-bearers and the migrants as the rights-holders.

The gaps identified included:

  • Transparency: all stakeholders need to know relevant information about the migration process
  • Skills development — includes hard and communication skills,
  • Effective help desks — access to unified information and services that help ease and make clear the migration process,
  • A common legal system — calling for all countries to introduce a legal system that protects the legal rights of migrant workers, 
  • Operational one-step service centre — making sure databases are updated and include a list of in-demand sectors and jobs,
  • Partnership — collaborative partnership approach between all countries to address migration issues. 

Women and migration

Governments of sending and receiving countries need to further study the protection of women migrant workers and what the future of work for them looks like. With high numbers of women migrant workers coming into the Gulf to work in the care and domestic sector, we need to ensure their rights are protected across the spectrum of migration. Currently, four out of the six GCC states have a domestic workers law. As the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume, stated in her recent report, to create a separate law for domestic workers rather than include them in the labour law further marginalises them.   

The aim should then be to include them in the full extent of the labour law. Additionally, this calls for the inclusion of women migrant domestic workers in wage protection systems and allowing them better access to justice by rethinking alternatives to detention and deportation faced by many. 

Going back to the issues stemming from mass repatriation, cities are now faced with the need to respond to high numbers of returnees – many of whom will not come back to the Gulf states. The cycle of reintegration is being tested greatly because many workers have been forced to go home and will be joining the increasing pool of unemployed. Many of the returning workers have unsettled claims in the countries they were employed in and are victims of wage theft. Pakistan’s response to this issue was to create a portal in which over 41,000 returning workers have registered. The purpose of this portal is to help returning workers with social and economic reintegration – a response method that can be adopted by other governments too. 

We are a long way from achieving fair and just labour migration in which all rights and needs are met. Mechanisms need to be put in place to examine better labour recruitment dynamics through improved data forecasting. Women and youth are missing from partnership agreements and therefore need to be better integrated. Various government bodies involved in processing recruitments (i.e., issuing work permits, visas etc.) need to better coordinate with each other to ensure more effective recruitment pathways. Technology and adoption of e-governance can be viewed as one of the many solutions for this to improve efficiency. 

A point that was echoed in all thematic notes was the importance of skills recognition. Unskilled workers spending years in destination countries are coming back with newly acquired skills that need to be certified and used effectively in countries of origin. Many of these skills can open up job opportunities back home, providing solutions to unemployment problems. This pandemic is an opportunity to “reset” and build a better future for migrant workers and the societies they help build at origin and destination.

Personally, upon spending a few days participating in the Online Regional Consultation, a few questions remain unanswered: 

  • Where are the migrant workers about whom we are talking at such great lengths? Where is their representation? 
  • Why was legalising workers unions in host countries not discussed? 
  • What are the next steps to measuring the success of all suggestions made during the Abu Dhabi Dialogue? 

These questions come to mind after any such training or conference I participate in. Partnership ideas have always been discussed, suggestions have always been made, governments have always been present, yet the problem remains almost untouched. 

This is not to say that there have not been any developments, but I believe that there have not been enough developments over the past few years. 

Systems in destination countries – that give employers the upper hand in the relationship – are stacked against workers’ access to their human rights. Laws that exist are poorly implemented.  

As long as these meetings and conferences fail to include worker’s voices, their impact is going to be limited. Their representation is often through an intermediary, but that is not enough. How much longer do workers have to rely on other’s voices in order to be heard? Legalising workers unions, in my opinion, should be one of the first steps GCC governments take. 

We, as groups with a voice, are always ready to make suggestions. 

Governments, being the ones who can change happen on paper, are always ready to make promises. 

Workers, being the ones directly affected by poor frameworks, unjust systems and neglect, are still waiting for our suggestions to be heard and the government’s promises to become actions.