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.
Three times each month, dozens of women gather in dusty courtyards in rural towns in Manikganj, Dinazpur or other districts across Bangladesh to learn all they can about the only means by which they can support their families: migrating to another country for work.
In leading these information sessions, the Bangladesh Migrant Women’s Organization (BOMSA) seeks to assist women in understanding their rights—from what they should demand of those who facilitate their migration, to the wage and working conditions at the homes in Gulf and Asian countries where they will be employed as domestic workers.
“What I want for these women is that they are safe, they get their wages,” said Sheikh Rumana, BOMSA general secretary. Rumana founded the organization in 1998 with other women who worked with her for years in Malaysian garment factories. Before she migrated for work in Malaysia, Rumana was promised a good salary at an electronics plant. But when she arrived, she was put to work at a plant making jackets and paid pennies for each piece she sewed.
The gap between the promise and reality of migrating for work overseas is the focus of migrant worker activists across Asia. This month, Rumana and seven other migrant worker activists from Bangladesh, India and the Maldives are traveling across the United States as part of a Solidarity Center exchange program supported by the U.S. State Department. The group is meeting with U.S. activists working on labor rights, migrant rights and anti-human trafficking issues in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles to discuss best practices to promote safe migration and share ideas for raising awareness about the risks of migrating for work.
Like BOMSA, the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants Development Foundation (WARBE-DF) assists those seeking to migrate, provides support for workers overseas and assists them upon their return. The organization also has successfully pushed the Bangladeshi government to ratify the United Nations (UN) convention on the protection of migrant workers, and is campaigning for passage of the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention covering decent work for domestic workers, said Jasiya Khatoon, WARBE-DF program coordinator and Solidarity Center exchange participant.
“Lack of job opportunities” is what drives millions of Bangladeshis out of their country in search of work, Khatoon said. Some 8.5 million Bangladeshis are working in more than 150 countries, according to 2013 government statistics.
Many workers migrating from Bangladesh and elsewhere are first trafficked through another country—where a lack of proper documentation may result in their arrest. In Mumbai, India, a transit point for many migrants, human rights lawyer Gayatri Jitendra Singh works both to assist imprisoned migrant workers and to change the country’s laws so that, rather than penalizing migrant workers, the laws recognize the culpability of traffickers and corrupt labor brokers.
Singh, a former union organizer, and other migrant advocates, point to the actions of labor brokers as the biggest underlying problem in the migration process. Many labor brokers charge such exorbitant fees for securing work that migrant workers cannot repay them even after years on the job, essentially rendering them indentured workers. They remain trapped, often forced to remain in dangerous working conditions because their debt is too great. Unscrupulous brokers also lie about the wages and working conditions workers should expect in a destination country, the migrant advocates say.
Singh and the other migrant advocates came to the United States filled with fresh stories about the suffering of migrant workers and their families: a Bangladeshi domestic worker in Jordan and another in Lebanon who had just returned to Bangladesh, still suffering the effects of nightly sexual abuse by their employers; the family of an Indian construction worker who died in Qatar and is unable to pay for the return of his body; the 12-year-old Bangladeshi girl whose passport cites her age as 25 so she can migrate overseas to support her family because her father is ill.
Bangladeshis “wouldn’t go if there were jobs in their country,” said Rumana. But faced with grinding poverty and no chance for decent work in Bangladesh, they uproot their lives to make a living. But as long as they do, Rumana said, they “shouldn’t have to be tortured to have work.
The Qatar Foundation’s guidelines for treatment of migrant workers would cover many construction workers in the nation to set up the 2022 World Cup.
The 2022 World Cup competition in Qatar may be nine years away, but the tiny nation is already making plans to improve the country’s infrastructure and image. While Qatar still has a long way to go in meeting international labor standards, especially when it comes to migrant workers, there are already some encouraging signs coming out of the country. The Qatar Foundation recently unveiled a set of detailed standards for the treatment of the potentially hundreds of thousands of migrant workers hired by the foundation, its contractors, and all subcontracting agencies to build the infrastructure for the event.
In doing so, the foundation expresses its goal to “initiate a snowballing process towards transforming workers’ quality of life and…set an exemplary model for ethical treatment of workers nationwide.”
More than 1 million new migrants are expected to travel to Qatar seeking construction work and other jobs created by the World Cup. They will join 1 million migrants already in the country who have contributed to transforming Qatar into an economic giant, most visible in the evolution of the nation’s skyline from an empty expanse to one filled with opulent skyscrapers. Despite Qatar’s extreme wealth and economic advancement, migrant workers have labored in a system that denies them core worker rights, including the right to form unions.
Migrant workers are frequently forced to live and work in unsafe and miserable conditions, deprived of time for rest and pressured into accepting contracts that underpay the hours they work.
The Qatar Foundation’s Mandatory Standards of Migrant Workers’ Welfare for Contractors & Sub-Contractors is a significant step forward, says Nader Tadros, Solidarity Center Middle East and North Africa regional program director. “We commend the foundation for following through on the country’s international promises to protect migrant workers and improve working conditions. Despite the need for continual improvement, we see this as a positive step in the right direction as the country begins construction efforts for the 2022 World Cup.”
The 51-page document lays out lengthy rules for acceptable treatment and conditions for migrant workers, including regulations prohibiting workers from being charged recruitment fees to obtain work and mandating that all migrant workers receive training on their rights under Qatari law. The regulations further stipulate that all contracts and training materials be provided in the workers’ own languages and that workers retain their passports while in the country.
Since 2009, the Solidarity Center has assisted Qatari civil society organizations in their efforts to improve the lives of migrant workers. Lending expertise to the Qatari National Human Rights Committee (QNHRC) and the Qatar Foundation to Combat Human Trafficking (QFCHT), the Solidarity Center has served as a resource for Qataris looking to advance working standards for migrant workers.