Of the various human rights violations that the Kafala system enables, wage theft is the most rampant. Poor complaints systems, constraints on job mobility, and weak Wage Protection Systems mean workers can spend months working without pay, and years trying to reclaim their due. The graphic below illustrates the lifecycle of wage theft in the GCC:
Workers who want to find alternate employment while pursuing their claims face a number of obstacles, including a lack of legal and financial support. Those who are forced to return without filing a complaint are especially likely to lose their dues. Some are duped or forced by their employers to sign documents forfeiting their owed wages in order to retrieve their passports or receive tickets home. Even those workers who have not signed away their rights still face an impossible battle fighting their cases from abroad as transnational justice mechanisms do not exist.
Domestic workers, particularly women migrants, are especially vulnerable to wage theft and have little or no recourse to lodge complaints. On average, live-in domestic workers work upwards of 70 hours a week, often but are rarely compensated for overtime. Even where domestic worker laws exist, protections are weak and these workers remain excluded from labour inspections and wage protection systems. Though all GCC countries – with the exception of Oman – stipulate end-of-service gratuity for domestic workers, most return without these entitlements.
Similarly, all GCC countries have laws that protect workers against arbitrary dismissals. Workers who are unjustly dismissed are eligible for compensation, but many workers do not pursue this claim because of lack of awareness of the law, time-bound restrictions to file a complaint, and the general difficulties of navigating the complaints system as a migrant.
The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced both more obstacles to justice and more opportunity for wage theft: employers have taken advantage of the turmoil to unfairly dismiss workers, repatriate them without their full dues, or otherwise renege on their obligations, even if businesses received government relief.
Workers who have returned prematurely and those still stranded in the Gulf have virtually no accessible means of claiming their dues. For domestic workers, the pandemic has further curtailed their freedom of movement and ensuing access to redress. Amid travel restrictions, many domestic workers were forced to stay at their employer’s home, even after completing their contracts and work for little to no wages.
Weak justice mechanisms
Access to justice across the GCC is weak even in the best of circumstances. Costly, time-intensive, difficult to navigate, and often not worth the outcome, the complaints system effectively discourages migrants from addressing their grievances. Though new mechanisms, such as virtual and fast-track courts, have been recently adopted in some of the Gulf states, both access to justice and enforcement of judgement remain key issues.
The pandemic has worsened an already faulty system in several ways: court delays for new or ongoing complaints have increased, which effectively means more expense for the worker. As resources and procedures move online, accessibility becomes even more of an issue for migrants. With embassies and community groups overextended in providing relief and repatriation to distressed workers, there are even fewer resources for migrant workers with complaints to rely on.
One urgent recourse that civil society organisations have advocated for since the outset of the pandemic is the establishment of a transnational justice mechanism for repatriated workers.
Reforms to the complaints systems, justice mechanisms, and labour policies are critical to addressing these issues beyond the pandemic. Key measures are noted below the case studies that follow.