Labour ministers from Gulf and Asian countries meeting later this week have been urged to improve labour law protection, reform abusive immigration policies, and increase dialogue with trade unions and non-governmental groups.
A total of 90 human rights organisations and unions have issued a joint statement calling for action to protect domestic workers in the Gulf region.
The statement said millions of contract workers from Asia and Africa, including an estimated 2.4 million domestic workers in the Gulf, are subject to a wide range of abuses, including unpaid wages, confiscation of passports, physical abuse, and forced labour.
“Whether it’s the scale of abuse of domestic workers hidden from public view or the shocking death toll among construction workers, the plight of migrants in the Gulf demands urgent and profound reform,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“This should include a thorough overhaul of the abusive kafala visa sponsorship system.”
The ministers will meet on November 26-27 in the third round of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, an inter-regional forum on labour migration between Asian countries of origin and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of destination.
The statement by the rights groups said the kafala system, used to varying extents across the Gulf, restricts most workers from moving to a new job before their contracts end unless they obtain their employer’s consent, trapping many workers in abusive situations.
"Many migrant workers feel intense financial pressure not only to support their families at home but also to pay off huge debts incurred during recruitment," it said.
It added: "Poorly monitored labour recruitment agencies, in both the migrants’ countries of origin and in the destination Gulf states, often overcharge migrant workers, deceive them about their working conditions, or fail to assist them if they encounter workplace abuse.
In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, migrant workers cannot leave the country without obtaining their employer’s consent for an “exit permit” from the authorities. Some employers have refused to pay wages, return passports, or provide permission for “exit permits” in order to exact work from workers involuntarily.
A November analysis by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) highlighted how gaps in national labour laws in GCC countries either partially or completely exclude domestic workers.
“The proposals made by GCC countries fall far short of the changes needed to protect domestic workers’ rights, safety, and dignity,” said Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).
“GCC countries should join the growing number of countries worldwide that are extending full protection of their labour laws to domestic workers, including a minimum wage, a weekly rest day, the right to organise, and social benefits.”
Human Rights Watch said the GCC has discussed a potential region-wide standard employment contract for domestic workers.
Recent media reports suggest that the GCC is also considering establishing a body to coordinate policies on hiring domestic workers that would consist of recruitment agency and government representatives.
“Standard contracts are not a substitute for labour law reform, and taken alone do not meet the standards in the ILO Domestic Workers Convention,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC.
“The GCC should work in closer coordination with – not separately from – countries of origin to develop labour migration policies that fully respect the human and labour rights of migrants.”
Migrants in the Gulf make an important contribution both to the economies of their own countries and those of the countries where they work.
“The meetings over the next few days provide a key opportunity to promote regional minimum standards that would avoid a counterproductive race to the bottom in labour conditions,” said William Gois of Migrant Forum Asia. “The governments should develop a concrete action plan, in consultation with migrant workers themselves and the organisations that represent them, with benchmarks to monitor its progress.”
The groups recommend that the governments:
* Establish and enforce comprehensive labor law protections for migrant workers, including domestic workers;
* Reform the kafala (sponsorship) visa system to ensure that workers can change employers without being required to first obtain their consent;
* Remove the “exit permit” requirement in Saudi Arabia and Qatar;
* Strengthen regulation and monitoring of labor recruitment agencies, including eliminating recruitment fees for workers;
* Ensure that migrants have access to justice and support services; and
* Expand the Abu Dhabi Dialogue to include labor-origin countries from Africa, such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, and participation by non-governmental groups.