Some Gulf states have resumed recruitment of migrant workers, despite tens of thousands of workers affected by the pandemic remaining in limbo. The UAE, Qatar, Saudi, and Bahrain now allow new work permits and visas to be issued for specific sectors, including domestic work.
In the UAE, government and semi-government organisations and other employers in vital sectors may apply for work permits for their employees. New work permits may also be issued for domestic workers.
In Saudi, recruitment of domestic workers resumed on 7 October. The country is also re-issuing visas for workers who were stranded abroad, with over 30,000 workers from Bangladesh returning to the country in August and September alone.
In Qatar, the first group of new recruits arrived in October from Kenya, with more predicted to come to fill needs in the services sector especially. The Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs announced that approvals for recruitment requests will resume from 15 November.
In Bahrain, new work permit requests have been accepted since August, and for domestic workers since mid-September. New job postings must first be circulated locally for two weeks, to allow for citizens and residents already in the country to apply. Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi also have established online labour markets to promote the recruitment of workers already in the country, though they do not require local advertisement prior to new recruitment
"New workers brought in are likely to face the same uncertainty and instability affecting the existing workforce. The vast majority of workers laid off at the outset of the pandemic have been looking for jobs for months with little success."
The procedures for entry entail a new set of testing and quarantine requirements. But the new recruits are not only vulnerable to the virus but to wage theft and exploitation. The region’s economy is limping to recovery, and the workers who were hit by pandemic-related job loss and pay cut are yet to have their grievances heard and resolved. Force majeure regulations are still in place, that enabled companies to terminate, furlough or cut wages of workers. These regulations were supposed to be temporary measures to help with business continuity – not requiring a formal contract change – but nine months into the pandemic, it is unclear if and when this will be reversed.
In these circumstances, bringing in new workers must be done only after thorough deliberation and enforcement of measures to protect these new contracts, i.e., the force majeure regulations mentioned above cannot be enforced on new contracts, as that would be tantamount to contract substitution. Furthermore, employers must be encouraged to recruit from the local pool of migrant workers, now stranded, who meet skills requirements. To this end, an amnesty that regularises workers and enters them into a re-employment database is the need of the hour.
With potential threats of Covid-resurgence on the horizon, sectors badly hit will continue to suffer. Recruitment should be approved only for sectors that are not adversely affected, while completely excluding manpower supply companies and subcontractors without job orders from the approved list. There is a real concern that with no meaningful improvements made to labour complaints systems, the cycle of abuse is likely to reset – all while migrant workers still struggle to access basic needs or return home.
"The specific vulnerabilities of domestic workers are also yet to be addressed, despite the explicit resumption of recruitment in this sector."
While several of the Gulf states have adapted their labour complaints system to be more online-friendly, they remain mostly inaccessible to the majority of low-income migrant workers. Workers affected by the pandemic or with pre-pandemic grievances are still fighting for their dues across the region.
The specific vulnerabilities of domestic workers are also yet to be addressed, despite the explicit resumption of recruitment in this sector. Though lockdowns have been lifted, there is still control over domestic workers’ mobility, entrapping them in the homes of their employers, 24/7, seven days a week. Domestic workers will also carry greater workloads as work from home (for their employers) may well be the new norm, and will continue to risk exposure as they are responsible for taking children to school, accepting deliveries, and sanitising the home. These circumstances further aggravate the already exploitative conditions of domestic work.
New workers brought in are likely to face the same uncertainty and instability affecting the existing workforce. The vast majority of workers laid off at the outset of the pandemic have been looking for jobs for months with little success. While some countries, like the UAE, require additional permissions from the government to recruit workers, there is still not a strong work verification process that would ensure workers are being recruited to bonafide, full-time jobs. Amongst those most affected by the pandemic were those recruited in excess of demand, and who spent months prior to the pandemic without any work or wages. Many migrant workers who have managed to keep their jobs or find new ones are still reporting inconsistent payment of wages. Workers who have become undocumented, or on ‘free visas’, will require extra support to regularise their status in order to continue working or to return home. None of the GCC states have announced amnesties that allow for regularisation.
While some origin countries have also approved new recruitment from their end, officials on the ground remain apprehensive. For instance, Nepal reopened recruitment on 30 August, and the general secretary of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies, Sujit Kumar Shrestha, projects the deployment of 70,000 workers to Saudi Arabia alone. But Nepal missions are not processing work visas. A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Employment told The Kathmandu post that they are not only too busy still managing repatriations to verify new work visas, but are also wary that conditions are not safe enough for new migrants.
But pressure is mounting, both from the state and recruitment agencies in both countries of origin and destination. Workers are increasingly desperate to rejoin work or find new opportunities. In September, thousands of Bangladeshis with work permits held protests in Dhaka because they were unable to return to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Pakistani and Indian migrants landed in the UAE on visit visas but were denied entry. Passengers were not prevented from boarding the flights at ports of departure despite holding only a visit visa, because determining who is a bonafide tourist and who is a jobseeker is taken only on arrival.
Before the pandemic, migrants on visit visas to the UAE could convert visit visas to work visas in the country. This not only allowed companies to bypass any checks and balances in place for ethical recruitment in origin countries, but it also allowed the state to charge visa fees twice. While the workers have a marginal advantage of scouting for good jobs before committing to one, the economic reality on the ground means a large percentage of them settle for any job at all, and also end up paying huge recruitment charges locally. This exploitative recruitment practice is widely acknowledged but UAE does little to stop it.
As other Gulf states see an emergence of a local recruitment industry in the private sector, it is important to ensure that unethical practices of kickbacks and charging of recruitment fees from workers do not become the norm.
States should be careful to avoid returning to “business as usual,” especially since migrant workers are the most susceptible to exposure due to their living conditions and calls for a transitional justice system have yet to be met, and virtually no new protections have been established.
- Implement an amnesty that regularises all workers and enters them into a re-employment database.
- Require employers to advertise vacancies through local recruitment channels prior to submitting new recruitment requests.
- Only approve recruitment from sectors that are not adversely affected, and prevent manpower supply companies and subcontractors without job orders from applying for new work visas.
- Establish new procedures to ensure that new recruitment fills bona fide needs and that the employers remain in good financial standing.
- Work with recruitment agencies to identify domestic workers – those who have sought shelter and those who are still in exploitative environments – to find alternative job opportunities.
- Investigate employers applying for domestic workers visas, to ensure they had not previously violated contractual obligations.
- Develop clear guidelines for recruitment agencies and employers of domestic workers to ensure they are not overworked or forcibly kept at home. As part of steps towards including domestic workers in Wage Protection Systems, newly recruited workers should be paid via bank transfer or similar means, to enable greater guarantee of on-time wage payment and greater access to their money.
- Enable migrant workers with existing complaints to easily continue their case from abroad, including providing them support with power of attorney and coordinating with their embassy.
- Ensure that erring employers are penalised and that victims of wage theft are compensated with damages, in addition to the wages owed to them.
- Ensure new workers pay no recruitment fees or bribes both at origin and in destination, given that the environment is now even more ripe for exploitation.