The Struggle Between Governments and Migrant Workers in the Gulf States

Every year, thousands of migrants arrive on the shores of the Arabian Peninsula to seek employment.[1] The trend began in the 1970s when countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates established their oil economies and had the capital to fund large state construction projects.[2] Migrants arrived as blue-collared workers and were mainly employed in the domestic and construction sectors of the Gulf economies.[3] Most of the workers were from South and South East Asian countries such as the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh.[4] Asian workers were encouraged to work in the Gulf region as their own wage demands were lower than the previous Arab workforce they had replaced.[5] Migrant workers were also encouraged to seek employment there by their home countries as a means to boost their countries’ economies from the remittances sent back home by workers to their families.[6]  Asian workers also had the benefit of not having established networks that could have led to organized labour demands.[7]  The volume of migrant workers were so great that in some Gulf nations like Qatar, migrants made up the majority of the population.[8]   In Kuwait, migrant domestic workers alone numbered half a million and in Saudi Arabia, up to a million.[9]

While migrant workers did benefit from the wages that the Gulf states offered, they also suffered heavily from abuse, caused both directly and indirectly by the Gulf governments. Faced with limited freedoms, important questions must be raised to the whys and hows of the migrant situation in the Gulf states: what were the factors that led migrant workers to reach a boiling point and demand their rights? Secondly, how did migrant workers channel their demands? Thirdly, how did the Gulf states react to the workers’ demands, closely followed by whether reform was passed as a result of those demands.

In the Gulf countries, the Kafala system was used as a means of retaining and managing migrant workers.[10] Companies and citizens acted as sponsors and were given power over their workers with little to no government control.[11]  Sponsors, known as Kafeel, could be punished by the state if their employees committed crimes, ran away, or overstayed their work visa under the Kafeel’s care and so confiscation of workers’ passports were a common practice by employers.[12] Workers under the Kafala system also could not seek another employer without the permission of their current employer.[13]

By placing power to private companies and individuals, abuse in the Kafala system was rampant.[14] Employers often abused their power to gain back the expenses they paid to job recruiters by reducing the promised wages of their workers.[15] Migrant workers faced health issues as a result of work  exhaustion and in working in dangerous environments and would have their wages docked if they missed work for medical reasons.[16] Healthcare was also expensive and labourers often lived in remote areas without nearby medical facilities.[17] For female migrant workers, abuse often stemmed from employers treating workers either as children or as “loose” women, both labels of which restricted their movement.[18] Abusive employers used it as an excuse to imprison domestic workers in order to extract more workhours and to keep them isolated to prevent escapes.[19] Because migrant housekeepers and childcare workers were isolated, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse was rampant.[20] The legal system also prevented workers from seeking compensation.[21] Workers were continuously taken advantage of by unfair contracts, the Gulf court systems were difficult and expensive to navigate, and the migrants’ home embassies often ignored their demands, making it nearly impossible to settle disputes.[22]

Gulf companies were notorious for often being late on paying migrant workers their wages and on occasion withheld payments completely, dealing a devastating blow to workers who were vulnerable, exploited, and had so much at stake.[23]  It came to no surprise that migrant workers commonly went on strike and protested due to unfair conditions and labour disputes, even when those strikes were considered illegal.[24] In 2014, the gulf nation of Bahrain responded to a strike involving 2,000 workers by deporting and jailing workers as a method of intimidation.[25] The workers’ demands for improved healthcare and necessities went unanswered by their fashion company employer until another strike finally granted them a small increase in salaries.[26]  Female migrant workers led a strike in Saudi Arabia, requesting wages be paid, vacations days, and the ability to be granted the right to leave the country.[27] In the United Arab Emirates, protesters were handled with brutality, facing torture.[28] In 2015 alone, thousands workers in Kuwait staged three strikes at three different companies, requesting wages that had been withheld from them and in one dispute, leaving them without money to buy food.[29] In 2014, anti-migrant sentiment in Saudi Arabia led to riots against migrant workers in the capital, killing one migrants.[30]

Migrants that dared to make demands to their employers were threatened, arrested, deported, and physically assaulted,  all in which the Gulf state governments played a key role.[31] The reason why the Gulf governments enacted brutal measures on protestors was underlying fear of an uprising as in many states, not only do migrant workers outnumber the native population but they also fuel the states’ infrastructures.[32]  Lower wages and living costs had an obvious financial advantage to both state and private employers but governments also were motivated by the practice as it denied migrants’ agency and minimized the risk of protests.[33] In theory, a worker that was preoccupied with the everyday necessities would have less energy devoted to struggles against the state.[34]

Reforms for migrant workers in the Gulf states have faced opposition from companies, politicians, independent employers, and contractors for a multitude of reasons.[35] Reforms would have inevitably raised wage costs and living conditions and would have protected workers from exploitive practices that made their labour cheap and sought after.[36] Nevertheless, human right abuses had also caught the attention of the UN’s International Labour Organization and migrant NGOs had formed to demand better working and living conditions for workers.[37]  As of 2011, the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates promised to create laws protecting the rights of migrant workers but it has been a slow process with few results thus far.[38] An obstacle for reform was that the Gulf states’ bureaucracies that handled migrant worker disputes were not organized enough to handle cases, which then the burden fell on non-state actors such as recruiters and employers to settle disputes with no government oversight.[39] To combat this issue, the government of Saudi Arabia  had put forth an idea of reducing the amount of recruitment from hundreds of private recruiters to just a small handful of companies in order to better regulate the recruitment process.[40] However the idea had yet to be utilized.[41] The United Arab Emirates initiated change within its borders by reforming its labour agreements with the migrants’ home countries, but the agreements have proven not to be strong enough to prevent further abuse towards migrant workers.[42] Migrant workers continued to be discriminated against based on their country of origin and still faced the realities of low salaries, poor housing, and food insecurity.[43]

Some migrant groups did benefit from a few successful reforms. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are the two Gulf states that legally allowed a migrant worker to bypass the consent of their original employer in order to find another employer.[44] Unfortunately, in the case of Bahrain’s 2009 reform, the law only covered migrant workers working in non-domestic labour.[45] Kuwait had a similar law in which an employee, after four years, could leave a current employer to find another, but once again it left out employees that worked in the domestic sector.[46] In 2004, five Gulf states ratified the “Arab Charter on Human Rights”, in which it had banned abuse regardless of nationality and under the guidelines, the Gulf states would have to submit reports to monitor their countries and follow the charter.[47] The measure is largely symbolic but it did lay a foundation for future human right laws  for migrants in the Gulf region.[48]

While there were a small amount of reforms in the Gulf states, overall the governments have failed to protect the rights of their most vulnerable population. Obviously frustrated, the migrant workers have attempted to take matters into their own hands by means of protest and strikes but they made little headway as they could be deported at a moment’s notice.[49] While migrant workers are numerous, the Gulf states were simply too powerful to make any substantial changes.[50] The only way migrant workers could gain their demands for basic human rights is if the Gulf governments moved past empty promises and made substantial legislative actions to protect them. However, whether the Gulf region will be motivated enough to make those changes has yet to be seen.


Bibliography

  1. Alzahrani, Majed M. “The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia”. European Journal of Law Reform, Summer, Vol.16(2) (2014): 377-400. Access date: December 8, 2016. http://heinonline.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/HOL/Page?public=false&handle=hein.journals/ejlr16&collection=journals&id=377.
  2. Devi, Sharmila. “Concerns Over Mistreatment of Migrant Workers in Qatar”. The Lancet, 17-23 May 2014, Vol.383(9930) (2014): 1709-1709. Access date: December 8, 2016. http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0140673614608187.
  3. Varia, Nisha. “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol.23(1) (2011):265-287. Access date: December 8, 2016. http://heinonline.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/HOL/Page?public=false&handle=hein.journals/cajwol23&collection=journals&id=270.
  4. “‘My Sleep is My Break’: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar”. London: Amnesty International, April (2014): 1-78. Access date: December 8, 2016. https://www.amnesty.org.uk/webfm_send/358.
  5. “Labour Strikes in the GCC: Deportations and Victories in 2014”. Migrant Rights. Last modified October 29th, 2014. https://www.migrant-rights.org/2014/10/labor-strikes-in-the-gcc-deportations-and-victories-in-2014/.
  6. “Kuwait’s Migrants Protest State-Contracted Companies that Don’t Pay on Time”. Migrant Rights. Last modified June 30th, 2015. https://www.migrant-rights.org/2015/06/kuwaits-migrants-protest-state-contracted-companies-that-dont-pay-on-time/.
  7. “The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States”. Fanack Chronicle. Last modified November 29th, 2016. https://chronicle.fanack.com/specials/migrant-labour/the-plight-of-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf-states/.

 

[1] “The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States”, Fanack Chronicle, last modified November 29th, 2016, https://chronicle.fanack.com/specials/migrant-labour/the-plight-of-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf-states/.

[2] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 270.

[3] “The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States”, Fanack Chronicle, last modified November 29th, 2016, https://chronicle.fanack.com/specials/migrant-labour/the-plight-of-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf-states/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Majed M. Alzahrani, “The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia”, (European Journal of Law Reform, 2014), 380-381.

[6] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 270.

[7] Majed M. Alzahrani, “The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia”, (European Journal of Law Reform, 2014), 380-381.

[8] “Labour Strikes in the GCC: Deportations and Victories in 2014”, Migrant Rights, last modified October 29th, 2014, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2014/10/labor-strikes-in-the-gcc-deportations-and-victories-in-2014/.

[9] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 270.

[10] Majed M. Alzahrani, “The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia”, (European Journal of Law Reform, 2014), 377.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 383, 387.

[13] Ibid., 383.

[14] Ibid., 383-384.

[15] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 282.

[16] Sharmila Devi, “Concerns Over Mistreatment of Migrant Workers in Qatar”, (The Lancet, 2014), 1709.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 268.

[19] Ibid., 281.

[20] “‘My Sleep is My Break’: Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers in Qatar” (London: Amnesty International, 2014), 34-44.

[21] Majed M. Alzahrani, “The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia”, (European Journal of Law Reform, 2014), 384-385.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States”, Fanack Chronicle, last modified November 29th, 2016, https://chronicle.fanack.com/specials/migrant-labour/the-plight-of-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf-states/.

[24] “Kuwait’s Migrants Protest State-Contracted Companies that Don’t Pay on Time”, Migrant Rights, last modified June 30th, 2015, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2015/06/kuwaits-migrants-protest-state-contracted-companies-that-dont-pay-on-time/.

[25] “Labour Strikes in the GCC: Deportations and Victories in 2014”, Migrant Rights, last modified October 29th, 2014, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2014/10/labor-strikes-in-the-gcc-deportations-and-victories-in-2014/.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Kuwait’s Migrants Protest State-Contracted Companies that Don’t Pay on Time”, Migrant Rights, last modified June 30th, 2015, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2015/06/kuwaits-migrants-protest-state-contracted-companies-that-dont-pay-on-time/.

[30] “Labour Strikes in the GCC: Deportations and Victories in 2014”, Migrant Rights, last modified October 29th, 2014, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2014/10/labor-strikes-in-the-gcc-deportations-and-victories-in-2014/.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 280-281.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 267.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 273.

[38] Ibid., 274.

[39] Ibid., 276.

[40] Ibid., 279.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 275.

[43] Ibid., 276.

[44] “The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States”, Fanack Chronicle, last modified November 29th, 2016, https://chronicle.fanack.com/specials/migrant-labour/the-plight-of-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf-states/.

[45] Nisha Varia, “Sweeping Changes – A Review of Recent Reforms on Protections for Migrant Workers in Asia and the Middle East”, (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 2011), 279.

[46] Ibid., 280.

[47] Majed M. Alzahrani, “The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia”, (European Journal of Law Reform, 2014), 391.

[48] Ibid.

[49] “Kuwait’s Migrants Protest State-Contracted Companies that Don’t Pay on Time”, Migrant Rights, last modified June 30th, 2015, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2015/06/kuwaits-migrants-protest-state-contracted-companies-that-dont-pay-on-time/.

[50] Labour Strikes in the GCC: Deportations and Victories in 2014”, Migrant Rights, last modified October 29th, 2014, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2014/10/labor-strikes-in-the-gcc-deportations-and-victories-in-2014/.

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