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Breaking the wall of resistance: Why mere reforms are not enough

On August 10, 2020

Advocacy in the GCC states seems an exercise in futility. It is like watching paint dry on a wall in the middle of nowhere that protects nothing but still stands firm, wide open to the dust and winds of the desert climes. Ever so often a fresh coat is applied, and as the paint dries, the inseparable residue of grime forms a pattern more telling than what the wall pretends to encompass.

To speak of human rights in general, and that of migrant labour, in particular, is often brushed aside disdainfully as a western concept, as if the fundamental rights of individuals were at cross purposes with nation-building. And as if the country were nothing more than its sacrosanct borders, and the people mere cogs to move forward the agenda of nationalism. This, of course, is not an issue unique to the Gulf states, but it is most definitely pronounced where the influential minority are threatened by the disempowered majority that toils in slave-like conditions for a national agenda that serves little else but empty jingoism.

Photo credit:Palap

A lot has been written on the xenophobic discourses in the GCC against the large, indispensable population that holds up the economic structures of the rentier states. The plight of migrant workers is blamed on the Kafala system, lack of democracy, absolute (and ruthless) monarchies, corrupt businesses and the Sharia. These are not disembodied systems that exist in a vacuum. The inequity we bemoan thrives in the fertile silences of the complicit – not just citizens, but also the foreigners who find their fortunes here, the corporations that profit from the exploitative policies, international agencies that make far too many compromises in the name of diplomacy, and non-governmental organisations that have internalised the trope of the temporariness of migrant labour.

Every year or two, a new catchphrase will make an appearance, millions of dollars will be pumped in, and projects will be designed to amplify that agenda: recruitment reform, ethical recruitment, safe migration, anti-trafficking, access to justice, business and human rights, and what-have-you. There will be an agenda for destination countries and one for home countries, and there will be pilot schemes for certain corridors. It never gets old and is repeated time after time, the failure or lack of success not once deterring new investments and reenactment of old practices. Donors will decide what’s worth funding, and organisations will design programmes to fit that template disregarding the many truths on the ground that may sometimes be in conflict with each other.

Each of these agendas will come with its own funding stream, with a box set of experts and policy notes, and an enviable travel itinerary justified by global conferences supported by various UN and international mechanisms. The agendas may overlap, but the discussions rarely will. The lines of communication will remain weak and not considered particularly relevant. But do issues concerning labour migration and human rights fit so neatly into these distinct silos? Do the inalienable rights of the individual lend itself to such false classifications and hierarchy?

As common sense dictates, the results will not vary if the methods don’t. Yet, we persevere to define pockets of rights that need to be protected for a group that is assumed by all to be second-class citizens with no more due to them than what temporary measures may be warranted. The Gulf states will tease out reforms – “baby steps” they will remind you – as if they were inventing the wheel when all they have to do is set it in motion globally established practices.

The pandemic should not be an eye-opener for governments alone. It should be a wake-up call for activists and advocates, for community organisations, and conscionable citizens. At the best of times, if there were such a time at all, advocacy was limited to periodical reports and toned-down criticism. Now our work has devolved in many ways to provide services. Food packets, flight tickets, covering rents and providing for medical care. Charity without justice only provides impunity to exploitative practices and poor governance. Why should the absolute duty of the government and the irrefutable obligation of businesses be replaced by the benevolence of individuals and community?

In all of this, the voices of the workers remain muted. As long as they are portrayed only as helpless victims awaiting the largess of the privileged, their stories dependent on many interlocutors to find a stage, what will be advocated for is to only remove their victimhood. But that is duplicitous too. Because when they are not victims they are invisible, their problems seem trivial and their aspirations appear to belong elsewhere. That useless wall will remain, attracting fresh coats of paints, and we will spend years trying to scrub the grime already caught in amber. It is time for that wall to be dismantled brick by brick.

Gulf states cannot be allowed to fill their huge labour deficit by replicating conditions similar to the impoverished countries they recruit from. The utter and abject lack of regard for human dignity hasn’t been more visible than in the last six months. Inarguably, these societies and economies will collapse without the people it treats so poorly. It is disingenuous then for human rights advocacy to focus on piecemeal reforms. Too often we take what the countries are willing to offer and push them one tiny measure ahead. While this play may have worked at some point, it doesn’t when what is offered continues to be regressive. It cannot be baby steps towards the bare minimum, to achieve the most basic level of humane living. 

So, it is not sufficient to settle for a minimum wage that is neither fair nor decent. It is not acceptable to rip apart families across continents because it’s not pretty enough for the Gulf to provide inclusive and decent housing. It is unethical to deny belonging to those who build these countries. It is downright criminal to give impunity to employers who commit the gravest of human rights abuse. It is unfair to apply charity in place of justice. And it is neocolonialism to prey on poor countries for your labour needs.

Who is responsible?
Profitable companies leave their workers in the lurch. Their wages have been stolen, and many have been left stranded without a roof over their head and food on their plate.
  • Charitable endeavours step in to help the workers. But because open and transparent civil society space is non-existent in much of the Gulf, even these interventions are ad hoc and do not even begin to meet a fraction of the need. It is not sustainable, and many fall between the cracks.
  • So, after a lifetime of toil, workers are left destitute across the region, with no hope of justice. 
The government should have recovered funds from companies that have violated workers contracts and the law, paid the workers and blacklisted them from bidding for future projects.
The government should also set up easily accessible shelters and food banks to enable workers to fight their case without the worry of destitution.
The Kafala shackles individual employees to their sponsors (employers). The intent of the arrangement at some distant point in the past may have been to hold kafeels (sponsors) responsible for the welfare of their employees. We are well past the stage when that arrangement has ceased to exist, and the system only stands to control workers. So, when the pandemic hit the region, the kafeels washed their hands of their responsibility.
Companies that recruit workers transnationally should pay a surety bond that can be tapped into in times of crisis. But Gulf regimes, in the pursuit of enabling businesses (and citizen businessmen), have not installed even minimum protection mechanisms such as this. 
On a flagship project, a World Cup site, workers have not been paid. It takes a report from an international organisation like Amnesty for officials to react to what’s happening in their own backyard. But what of the thousands of workers in less flashy projects, who are also victims of forced labour and wage theft?
The Wage Protection System should have flagged non-payment and labour inspectors should have investigated the case within the first few weeks of the problem cropping up. But the WPS does not protect wages, and labour inspections are well below standard across the region.
Domestic workers are at the very bottom of the pecking order. Their problems come to light only when there is a threat to their life, or they have succumbed to injuries from abuse. Overworking, non-payment, verbal abuse are all in a day’s work and receive no censure from officials
  • Domestic workers in Saudi Arabia let slide that they were not paid during the lockdown, accepting it is their lot.
  • While all evidence points to domestic workers being predominantly at the receiving end of abuse, policies are designed to place the burden of innocence on them by way of mental health checks or controlling their mobility.
  • That four out of the six GCC countries have a domestic workers law is deceptively encouraging. That they continue to be excluded from the labour law and are not seen as ‘workers’ is the root cause of many of the problems they face.
  • Domestic workers, in particular, have no recourse except to leave the homes of employers (and their workspace) to escape abuse. This immediately renders their status illegal and susceptible to absconding charges which are often misused.
Domestic workers should be included to the full extent of the labour law, that would afford to them the full spectrum of labour rights such as maximum working hours, overtime, including in WPS, labour inspections, weekly off day, end of service entitlements, and minimum wages.
Abusive employers must be blacklisted and prevented from recruiting fresh domestic workers.
Agricultural workers and fishermen are also amongst those excluded from labour laws and are vulnerable to extreme abuse.
All workers, regardless of sector, must be included in the labour law.
Passport confiscation is illegal in all of the GCC countries. Yet, the practice remains rampant as a means to control workers’ mobility, and also as a ransom to dissuade them from filing complaints against abusive employers. 
  • In the case of the Orlando company in Bahrain, the company refused to return passports and ID documents unless workers settled for less than what was owed to them.
  • Domestic workers who reach out to us to complain of abuse almost always are not in possession of their passports. And even when officials are aware of this do not take action against the sponsors, and even fail to retrieve the passports.
Annual visa renewal must be done independently by the worker (and at the expense of the employer) which gives an opportunity for the worker to make an informed decision. When passports are confiscated, the employer must pay the penalty determined in the laws, and blacklisted from future recruitment.