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Abolish Absconding Charges

Gulf states encourage employers to file 'absconding' charges against workers who fail to show up to work. Workers who are reported as absconding are vulnerable to detention, deportation, and loss of any claims to owed wages or other grievances. Employers often misuse this power to threaten or punish workers who complain and they generally face no consequences for false reporting. Workers, in turn, have almost no opportunity to contest these charges: whether workers left employment due to abuse or wage theft, or did not leave at all, workers have almost no opportunity to contest these charges.

Gulf states must end the criminalisation of absconding and establish more permissive procedures for workers to leave their employment.

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In all of the GCC countries, provisions under the labour law allow employers to take disciplinary action against workers who leave their place of employment. Despite the existence of these provisions, absconding charges are used to harass workers. Gulf governments are aware that employers exploit this power, yet penalties are rarely levied against employers who file false or malicious charges, and they continue to incentivize employers to report absconded workers.

The process almost always privileges employers’ testimonies, even when clear evidence exists to the contrary. Migrants reported as absconded can be subject to indefinite detention, deportation, and forfeiture of any claims to wages or other labour issues. Most migrant workers are unaware of how to contest these charges, and few are ever given the opportunity to do so.

Absconding charges are an egregious feature of the Kafala system, linked to employers’ inordinate control over workers and restrictions on changing employers, which — combined with poor complaints mechanisms — often leaves workers in abusive employment situations with no option but to leave their employers. In turn, the fear of being reported as absconding forces many workers to endure wage theft, physical abuse, and other unacceptable working conditions.  The criminalisation of absconding is therefore a conduit of exploitation and forced labour.

Though advocates of migrant rights have demanded the decriminalisation of absconding for a long time now, none of the GCC states has shown any inclination to do so, and instead doubled down, introducing more stringent measures against workers. See our comparison of absconding procedures here.

Eileen, a domestic worker in Bahrain

Eileen was told she would be taking care of one elderly person before she left Kenya. When she landed in Bahrain, she was tasked with taking care of a large seven-person household. With not enough food or sleep, she tried to return to the agency office several times and requested the sponsor to send her back. With all pleas falling on deaf ears, she eventually managed to leave the household. Her passport that had been taken away as soon as she had landed was still with the employer.

A ‘runaway’ charge has been filed against her, and she cannot pursue new job offers unless the charges are dropped and her passport is returned.

“They were threatening me saying they would lock me up and not allow me to speak to my family. I was scared to stay on. I had no choice. I had to leave. I was scared for my life, I have my family back home,” she says.

Eileen is waiting, in limbo, and says she has no plans as she doesn’t know how to go about extricating herself from this situation.

“I am waiting for a miracle.”

Hamad, a driver in Qatar

Hamad arrived in Qatar in April 2018 on a two-year contract to work as a limousine driver. He was supposed to receive QR1600 as basic pay, a food allowance of QR300, accommodation and medical cover. On arrival, he was given a car by the company and was told he would not receive a salary, but instead would have to pay QR2500 monthly to the limousine company from what he earns on rides for hire. His passport was taken away. Over the next several months he received no wages and struggled to pay the monthly retainer to the company. In January this year, the car was taken away from him as he had failed to pay the monthly fee and had accumulated arrears.

With no income and already in dire straits, the Covid-19 lockdown was particularly hard on him. His QID had already expired. Hamad was in constant touch with the employer and tried resolving the issue. However, in the third week of January 2020, he received an SMS from the Metrash service notifying him of an absconding charge filed against him.

From Sri Lanka, Hamad spoke no Arabic and very little English. He was referred to Criminal Evidences and Information Department (CID) Office under the Ministry of Interior (MoI), by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (ADLSA). It is here that he would be able to clear these charges before applying for a sponsorship transfer. His first attempt failed because he had no one to help interpret the processes. A companion who knew Arabic was lined up for the second attempt the following Sunday.  But a couple of days before he was to appear at the CID, Hamad developed severe stomach pain and was rushed to Hamad General Hospital for an emergency appendicitis surgery. While his undocumented status did not interfere with his access to healthcare (which was free), the hospital reported him to authorities, and he was taken directly to the detention centre. A few weeks later he was deported.

Revathi, a domestic worker in the UAE

Revathi arrived in the UAE in 2012 to work part-time in households with a cleaning company. Though she had a cleaner’s visa, which falls under UAE’s labour law, she undertook domestic work. Due to the lockdowns, Revathi and her colleagues received no assignments in the past six months. Neither did they get their salary, food or accommodation allowance.

“We asked for allowances and they refused. Then a month into the lockdown, they called us to the office and asked to work as live-in housemaids. We didn’t accept it. They then pushed us to resign and sign a form to cancel the visa. I refused.”

Soon after, Revathi received a notification from authorities that her employer had slapped an absconding charge against her. The employer had also confiscated her passport, which is illegal as per UAE labour laws.

“Others with fewer years of service gave in and resigned because they were not owed much. I could not. I have worked for eight years and I have a right to my dues and end of service. If I resign, I will lose all that. I told Twafouq [centres which provide mediation services to resolve labour disputes] the same. So now I have a case in labour court.”

She had to first pay AED95  (USD26) to remove the absconding charge and another AED160 (USD44) to the ‘typing centre’ (Tasheel) to file a case against the employer. After eight years in the company, she was receiving a monthly salary of AED1600 plus food and housing allowance of AED300 and 500 respectively. She is owed close to AED13,000 as final settlement and return airfare.

Revathi wants to receive her dues and either leave the country or change employers.

Recommendations calls on the GCC States to decriminalise absconding, and reform laws accordingly. Until then, interim measures should address the misuse of absconding charges and the underlying factors which force workers to leave their place of employment.

Recommendations for Gulf countries

Implement amnesties that include workers who have pending absconding charges and waive all related fines. The amnesties should also extend pathways to regularising their status.

Penalise employers who misuse absconding laws and file false charges.

Investigate all cases of absconding to ascertain what violations and abuses may have led to a worker leaving their place of employment.

If a complaint has been filed by the worker, it must take precedence over any complaints filed subsequently by the employer. Ensure better coordination between the Ministries of Labour and Interior to accomplish this.

Pay specific attention to employers of domestic workers accused of running away.

Make it easier for migrants to change jobs, particularly those in domestic work.