In Gulf Cooperation Council countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—amnesties for workers in irregular status are frequently declared, indicating that irregularity is a common and recurring phenomenon within the governing kefala, or work-sponsorship, system. However, even if implemented perfectly, amnesty is a temporary fix, and effective solutions to reduce the population of undocumented migrant workers requires adherence to labor rights principles, according to a new report by the Solidarity Center and Migrant-Rights.org.
The GCC countries are characterized by a majority migrant workforce, tied to their employer-sponsors through kefala. However, for workers whose sponsors fail to renew work visas or for workers who are duped by fake jobs in the recruitment process or who land in untenable and abusive situations, workers “face a series of narrow, unenviable choices and are systematically denied freedoms enshrined in international human rights law,” says the report, Faulty Fixes: A Review of Recent Amnesties in the Gulf and Recommendations for Improvement.
In fact, the report adds: “Migrant workers who are unable to legally leave their job, or leave the country in some cases, are vulnerable to a range of abuses including occupational safety and health violations and gender-based violence as well as non-payment of wages and other forms of forced labor.”
The report has a variety of recommendations for countries of origin and Gulf nations to improve working conditions for migrant workers and to minimize factors that push them into irregular status. Among them: planning and communicating about an amnesty with migrant worker embassies and communities; investigate absent or abusive sponsors; and informing workers about their rights.
See the full report in English and Arabic.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) signed a cooperative agreement last week in Kuwait City, formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait for employment.
“It is crucial to bring together unions from countries on both ends of the migration spectrum to promote a deeper understanding of the challenges workers face along their journey and into the workplace,” said Solidarity Center Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs Hind Cherrouk. “This agreement, which affirms the rights of migrant workers from Kenya in Kuwait, is an important step forward in that regard.”
Millions of migrant workers are trapped in conditions of forced labor and human trafficking around the world, in part as a result of being lied to by labor brokers about the wages and working conditions they should expect. Of the estimated 150 million migrant workers globally, some 67 million labor as domestic workers—83 percent of whom are women—often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse.
The majority of some 34 million Africans are migrants move across borders in search of decent work—jobs that pay a living wage, offer safe working conditions and fair treatment. Often they find employers who seek to exploit them—refusing to pay their wages, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, and even physically abusing them. Kenyan women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia, for example, were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find upon their arrival that the pay was significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane. Through the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), COTU-K is supporting a multi-year effort to protect domestic workers migrating from the coastal area surrounding the city of Mombasa to homes in the Middle East.
Unions around the globe are increasingly taking joint action to create community and workplace-based safe migration and counter-trafficking strategies that emphasize prevention, protection and the rule of law. KTUF spearheaded a groundbreaking 2015 domestic worker law that granted enforceable legal rights to 660,000 mostly migrant workers from Asia and Africa working in Kuwait as domestic workers, nannies, cooks and drivers, and urged further protection for migrant workers in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. That same year, unions in Asia and the Gulf signed a landmark memorandum of understanding (MOU) that promoted and outlined steps for coordination among unions in organizing and supporting migrant workers in those regions. The Solidarity Center and its partners in the Americas in 2017 crafted a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.
“There is a potentially powerful role for union-to-union, cross-national and, in this case, cross-regional solidarity in protecting the dignity of migrant workers traveling from Africa to the Middle East. The Solidarity Center is proud to be a partner in this process and trade union-centered approach between the trade union movements of Kuwait and Kenya,” said Solidarity Center Director of Africa Programs, Hanad Mohamud.
The Constitutional Court of South Africa determined in a historic ruling late last week that workers placed by labor recruiters must be made permanent after three months at the company where they worked on temporary status, entitling them to the same pay, benefits and job security afforded to full-time employees, but labor organizations expect a protracted fight to enforce the ruling.
Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions’ (SAFTU), described the victory as “unprecedented,” congratulating the National Union of Minworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) for its successful—almost four-year battle—through South Africa’s labor courts and the Constitutional Court.
The ruling puts employers on notice, he said. “Sorry, you are going to have to treat all workers the same” finally giving meaning to the ILO Convention which requires equal pay for work of equal value,” said Vavi in a broadcast interview.
However, the Court stopped short of banning labor recruiting, or broking, outright, for which South Africa’s unions and federations have long advocated. Short of a ban, workers say, trade unions and labor federations expect challenges to ensuring enforcement of the ruling.
Sizwe Pamla, a spokesperson of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), said it was unfortunate that the ruling still “justified” labor brokers, whom he said were “trading in workers.”
NUMSA’s general secretary, Irvin Jim warned that workers “still remain vulnerable” under the new ruling because recruiters “will try to do every trick: They will try to replace the worker before three months [end]; they will try to remove him.”
South Africa’s workers have long argued that employers use so-called “temporary” workers to avoid the higher cost of employing permanent workers, an arrangement from which labor brokers profit.
To enforce the ruling, Vavi said, unions and federations must educate workers about their new rights under this ruling.
The Constitutional Court verdict overturns a 2015 judgment that labor recruiters and their clients are dual employers, thus making employers the direct responsible parties for all workers in their workplace after three months. Temporary workers earning $15,500 per year or less are covered by the ruling.
Labor recruitment in South Africa generated more than 2.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2013, employing over 1 million so-called temporary workers, or 7.5 percent of total employment.
Workers who migrate from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan for jobs often do not receive their wages, are forced to work in unsafe and abusive conditions and even are kidnapped and held against their will in forced labor, according to a new report.
“Invisible and Exploited in Kazakhstan” also found that children are forced to labor, with young girls between ages 12 and 17 working as nannies, and boys working in markets and on farms. The report is based on the findings of a series of missions by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its partners from September to November 2017 in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Solidarity Center contributed extensively to the report.
“The right to freedom of association is a core principle of human rights and worker rights, including when workers are migrating for jobs,” says Lola Abdukadyrova, Solidarity Center program coordinator. Abdukadyrova spoke yesterday at a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where the report was released.
Bedroom of five migrant workers in the basement of a construction site in Kazakhstan, November 2017. Credit: FIDH
Between 100,000 to 150,000 Kyrgyz were registered in Kazakhstan at the end of 2017, figures that do not reflect many who are not registered. Most work without written contracts or on contracts that do not adequately protect their rights. Their passports typically are confiscated, making it difficult for them to leave abusive employers, and they have no access to labor protections like safe working conditions and paid leave.
“The lack of labor agreements entails forced labor and even slavery,” says Aina Shormanbayeva, speaking at the press conference, which drew nearly two dozen reporters. Shormanbayeva is president of the Legal Initiative, a Kazakhstan-based public foundation.
Some 81,600 workers were victims of forced labor in Kazakhstan in 2016, according to estimates by the nonprofit Walk Free Foundation, with migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan forced to labor in agriculture, construction and the extraction industry.
Women Migrant Workers Targets of Gender-Based Violence
While some one-third of all migrants were women two to three years ago, the report finds women now comprise half of migrant workers. Women are especially vulnerable, facing gender-based violence in agricultural fields and in employers’ homes when working as domestic workers. They may lack medical care while pregnant and often are fired when employers learn of their pregnancy.
Says one woman migrant worker: “I work as a janitor from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and when there are banquets, until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Lunch breaks are 30 minutes maximum. There are no days off. I work every day. Some people can’t prove anything when they don’t get paid because nothing is documented. One woman worked at a car wash, they told her they didn’t have money and so they didn’t pay her. This happens to many people.”
Solidarity Center’s Lola Abdukadyrova, (second from left), discussed the plight of migrant workers in Kazakhstan during a press conference in Bishkek. Credit: Solidarity Center
The report finds migrant workers are not aware of their rights on the job, and they rarely appeal for protection of their rights when their employers perform illegal actions. They also do not believe police are able to protect their rights. In many cases, officers of law enforcement agencies are the link between migrant workers and buyers.
“Kazakhstan has not taken effective measures to prevent, investigate and prosecute persons involved in providing illegal intermediary services, and has not ensured effective legal protection for the victims,” the report states. Kazakh authorities argue that it is not their responsibility to protect migrant workers, and that protection of migrant workers is the responsibility of Akims (heads of regional or local authorities).
Kazakhstan was recently rated one of the 10 worst countries for workers by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Union leader Larisa Kharkova was sentenced in 2017 to four years of restrictions on her freedom of movement, a ban on holding public office for five years and 100 hours of forced labor on false charges of embezzlement. Kharkova led the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, which was ordered closed by a court ruling. Independent trade unions in Kazakhstan face ongoing attacks on freedom of association and basic trade union rights.
Over the past five years, the Solidarity Center in Kyrgyzstan has worked extensively to advance migrant worker rights, including holding awareness-raising campaigns for potential migrants and their families; supporting a hotline on labor migration issues; and assisting unions in protecting and promoting migrants’ worker rights.
Three years ago, Roshan Khatum, 14, was married to Sabir in Nepal’s Dhanusha District. (Although child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 1963, Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia.)
Shortly after they married, Sabir left for Saudi Arabia for work. Unable to find jobs to support their families, some 3.5 million Nepalis are working abroad. Many endure physical and other forms of abuse and some, like Sabir, cannot endure the suffering. Nine months after he left Nepal, Sabir committed suicide. At age 15, Roshan became a widow.
Losing her husband was not easy for Roshan. Her pain increased after she was pushed out of her home by her father-in-law, Leeyakat, who told her, “After losing our son, you are of no worth for us.”
Leeyakat travelled to Kathmandu to claim compensation for the death of his son. But when he learned that according to Nepal law the compensation money would be sent to Sabir’s wife, Roshan, Leeyakat said, “Let the body rot there, I don’t want it.”
Leeyakat returned to Kathmandu nearly nine months later, telling officials his daughter-in-law eloped so Sabir’s body could be returned to him as well as the compensation for his death. More than two months later, the coffin arrived in Nepal. His family performed the last rituals for Sabir according to the Muslim custom. However, Roshan was not informed. She did not even have the chance to see the body of her deceased husband.
During his visit to Kathmandu, Leeyakat had learned how to document his claim for compensation. He had even produced a forged document from the local village authority to pursue his claim. Leeyakat was almost successful in receiving the compensation. Yet just before receiving the payment, Leeyakat was caught.
But because Roshan does not have a marriage certificate, she cannot claim the compensation. Roshan only has a paper that states that she was married to Sabir as per the Muslim custom, which the government of Nepal does not accept as an authentic document. Further, because she was married at age 14, she is not technically a citizen of Nepal and so not eligible for government support.
Everyone in the village has tried to convince Leeyakat to come to a mutual understanding. Leeyakat has closed his ears. He doesn’t want to settle with Roshan, even though she indicated she would share half the compensation with him.
According to the insurance company policy, the claim must be settled within two years, leaving Roshan with only a few weeks before the time expires.
Krishma Sharma is a Solidarity Center program officer in Nepal.