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‘Increase migrant worker protection in Gulf countries’
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‘Increase migrant worker protection in Gulf countries’

Kuwait, November 22 – Labour ministers from Gulf and Asian countries meeting on November 26 and 27 next, should improve labour law protection, reform abusive immigration policies, and increase dialogue with trade unions and nongovernmental groups, 22 human rights organizations and unions said Saturday.
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 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. Nongovernmental groups participated in the first two rounds but were not invited to this year’s gathering. Labour ministers from the GCC states are to meet separately on November 23 and 24 to discuss a draft domestic workers contract and the proposed formation of a cross-GCC body to oversee migrant domestic work.
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. 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), “Facilitating Exploitation,” highlighted how gaps in national labour laws in GCC countries either partially or completely exclude domestic workers.
An October Human Rights Watch report, “I Already Bought You,” and an April Amnesty International report, “My Sleep is My Break,” found common patterns of abuse against domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar respectively, including unpaid wages, no rest periods, excessive workloads, food deprivation, and confinement in the workplace. In several cases, domestic workers reported physical or sexual abuse and had been in situations of forced labour, including trafficking.
“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 organize, and social benefits.”
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. These developments have lacked transparency and have suffered from inadequate consultation with migrant domestic workers, trade unions, and migrants’ rights organizations. Migrants’ countries of origin are also discussing their own standard contract through a separate process.
“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. In 2011, migrant workers in GCC countries sent home more than US$60 billion in remittances. Competition for jobs among the workers’ countries of origin, combined with their relative lack of bargaining power in relation to the labour-destination countries, means that the pressure they exert for better labour protections is weak.
“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 organizations that represent them, with benchmarks to monitor its progress.”
Kuwait University Law School will host an event on November 23, 2014, at which panelists from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, IDWF, the ITUC, and Migrant Forum Asia will discuss the rights of migrant domestic workers.
The groups recommend that the governments:
•    Establish and enforce comprehensive labour 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 labour 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 labour-origin countries from Africa, such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, and participation by nongovernmental groups.
Governments should ratify and implement international labour and human rights standards, the groups said. These include the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the ILO Forced Labour Protocol, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. – Migrant Forum of Asia. (The statement is being presented to Labour ministers from Gulf and Asian countries who are meeting in Kuwait on November 26 and 27.)