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GCC states fail to investigate migrant workers deaths despite increasing numbers

On March 18, 2022

A cross-regional report on migrant worker deaths in the Gulf draws attention to not only their hazardous working and living conditions, but also to the states’ complicity in increasing mortality rates, as little or no concrete action has been taken to prevent deaths and debilitating illnesses. The report – part of the Vital Signs Project – is the result of a partnership between organisations based in five origin states (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines) and led by FairSquare projects.

Data on mortality and health is sparse across the six GCC states – Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, but Vital Signs manages to compile critical data through government mechanisms in origin countries. Its first report concludes that annually there are as many as 10,000 deaths of migrant workers from these five Asian countries alone.

As the report explains:

The data that is available on the deaths of migrant workers in the Gulf is incomplete, in places contradictory, and it precludes effective analysis of the extent and gravity of the problem. These problems are compounded by a general lack of transparency. However, despite the shortcomings of the data, it appears that as many as 10,000 migrant workers from south and southeast Asia die in the Gulf every year (this figure will obviously be higher when migrant workers of other nationalities are included) and that more than 1 out of every 2 deaths is effectively unexplained, which is to say that deaths are certified without any reference to an underlying cause of death, instead using terms such as “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest”.

The data provided by origin countries is still incomplete, and the report stresses that it is the responsibility of authorities in destination countries to provide detailed information on deaths to authorities at origin. Moreover, according to the report, the data that is shared by the GCC states is “unreliable in relation to its specification of the causes of migrant worker deaths” and that there were “material inconsistencies between the data on causes of migrant worker deaths made available by origin states and that made available by the Gulf states…”

The lack of post-mortem investigations is the primary reason for the lack of reliable data.

“[T]here is rarely any effort to determine if a fatality was related to occupational accidents or diseases and therefore the families of workers who have died cannot claim any compensation from employers or from the Gulf states. Instead, the burden to compensate workers’ families is shifted to the origin states or onto workers themselves via insurance schemes.”

Nicholas McGeehan, the founding director of Fairsquare, says the project is an attempt to generate concerted action from origin governments to ensure that migrant workers are better protected from risks to their health. Speaking Migrant-Rights.Org, he said the aim was to generate information on topics that are under-researched, increase the pressure on states to publish data more transparently and persuade governments in both origin countries and the Gulf to take measures to prevent needless deaths and to reduce or limit the impact of injuries and diseases.

Abstract of the key recommendations of the report:

The governments of Gulf Cooperation Council States should

  • Establish specialised teams of inspectors and medical examiners to ensure that all deaths of migrant workers are investigated and certified in accordance with international best practice.
  • Commission independent investigations into the causes of migrant workers’ deaths and ensure that any investigation examines the possible role played by heat and humidity, overwork, air pollution, psychosocial stress, and workers’ ability to access health care.
  • Improve the quality of available data on mortality statistics for migrants. The data should be fully disaggregated by age, sex, occupation, nationality, date of death, and underlying cause of death to allow comparison across multiple categories.
  • To take account of circumstances and contexts where invasive autopsies are not possible, introduce non-invasive and verbal autopsy procedures after consultation with experts.
  • Make primary and emergency healthcare for low-paid migrant workers free of charge at the point of care, irrespective of workers’ immigration status or their possession of a health card, and ensure that fully resourced clinics and emergency rooms are in close proximity to areas with large populations of low-paid migrant workers. Ensure that a follow-up system is in place to ensure that labour inspectors follow up with employers of workers who do not possess health cards and impose meaningful sanctions on those who have not provided their employees with up-to-date health cards.
  • Ensure that migrant workers have access to mental as well as physical healthcare and that mental health policies, where they exist, are updated to include reference to the specific requirements and vulnerabilities of low-paid migrant workers.
  • Pass legislation to ensure that employers are required to provide outdoor workers with breaks of an appropriate duration, in cooled, shaded areas, when there is an occupational risk of heat stress; mandatory break times should take into account the environmental heat stress risks along with the exertional nature of the work being performed.
  • Conduct widespread screening and treatment programs for hypertension.
  • Conduct a study into the prevalence of CKDu or early-stage kidney disease among low-paid migrant worker populations.

The governments of origin states should:

  • Make available all historical data on deaths of overseas workers, disaggregated by destination, occupation, age, gender, date of death and cause of death. This data should be available online and presented in a way that facilitates effective analysis by public health experts. It should be accompanied by accurate, detailed data on the numbers of nationals in each Gulf destination state.
  • Ensure that all government ministries that collect and publish data on deaths of nationals overseas report to international standards (the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases). In cases where death certificates provide no underlying cause of death (for example when they are are certified without further context or explanation to “natural causes”, “cardiac arrest”, “acute heart failure”, or “acute respiratory failure”) they should be attributed in government records to the ICD code that refers to “ill-defined or unknown cause of mortality”.
  • Call on the Gulf states to: enhance investigation procedures for migrant worker deaths; commission independent investigations into the causes of migrant worker deaths; enhance legal protection from heat stress.
  • Strengthen the capacity of embassies in the Arab Gulf states to ensure that remains are returned in a timely fashion and to provide support to the families of the deceased, including in relation to cases where families are entitled to compensation.
  • Ensure that the issue of the investigation of migrant worker deaths, protection from risks to migrant worker health, and migrant workers’ access to healthcare are on the agenda of regional processes such as the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and the Colombo Process.

The full report can be read here: