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.
Saudi Arabia has announced new restrictions on expatriate workers, yesterday naming 12 types of retail stores that can only hire Saudi citizens.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Development issued a directive, as part of the government’s “Saudization project,” barring foreigners from working in shops that sell carpets, electronics, eyeglasses, home and office furniture, kitchen utensils, sweets, textiles and watches, as well as medical equipment and tools stores, auto parts and accessories stores, construction materials stores and car and motorbike dealers. The move follows a similar directive in April 2017 banning expatriates from jobs in shopping malls. In December, the government announced fines for gold and jewelry shops employing non-Saudi workers.
When Fauzia Muthoni arrived in Qatar from Kenya to work as a receptionist and earn money to support her family, the labor agent traveling with her informed Muthoni the job was in Saudi Arabia and escorted her to another plane. She tried calling her family, but realized her sim card did not work in the region. She asked to speak to the contact she was given by the labor recruiter in Kenya who arranged her job, but was told she could not contact him.
Trapped, she was taken to Saudi Arabia where she was forced to work in the homes of multiple households, cleaning, cooking and taking care of children. She was not allowed to contact her family. Back home in her town outside Nairobi, her mother repeatedly visited the labor broker to find out about her daughter, only to be told to come back the next week.
Muthoni worked for three years, toiling up to 18 hours a day, before finally escaping to a police station and ultimately back to Kenya. She was not paid for any of her work.
“They don’t think of you as a human being, they think of you as a slave to them,” she says.
Muthoni’s experience—repeated in various forms hundreds of thousands of times around the world each year—illustrates the difficulties migrant workers face in accessing justice, including assistance in leaving unsafe working conditions and claiming unpaid wages.
Migrant Workers among 25 Million Trapped in Forced Labor
U.S. National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month offers a time to amplify their experiences, which often begin when unscrupulous labor brokers prey on residents of communities in extreme poverty, falsely promising good wages and jobs in more wealthy countries like those in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Many who take jobs abroad through exploitative labor brokers often do not know their rights—and even when they do, have no access to justice.
That’s why the Solidarity Center, which holds trainings around the world for potential migrant workers to ensure they know their rights, is increasingly working to ensure migrants can exercise those rights.
In Bangladesh, where the Solidarity Center is partnering with the Bangladesh Obivashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) and the WARBE Development Foundation, nearly a dozen migrant workers were recently returned to Bangladesh after reporting abuse on the job in other countries. All reported unfair recruitment practices, long working hours, unfair compensation, and assault. Three received compensation from recruiting agencies and the Bangladesh government. They also received assistance in the form of food and transportation expenses incurred during their trip back to Bangladesh.
Migrant Worker Rights the Same as All Workers
The United Nations is currently considering a Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, which would be the first such agreement to cover all dimensions of international migration. Regulating labor brokers and ensuring access to justice are part of the broader spectrum of human and worker rights migrant workers must be guaranteed in the agreement, says Neha Misra, Solidarity Center Migration and Human Trafficking senior specialist.
“We cannot promote the contributions of migrant workers as stakeholders in sustainable development without providing them with options for fair migration,” she says. “This means migrant workers – regardless of status, sector, visa type, nationality or gender —must be treated equal to all other workers. We must develop cross-border mechanisms to allow migrant workers to access justice, remedies and compensation when unscrupulous employers steal their wages, or they are injured on the job, or they are trafficked or face gender-based violence in the workplace. This would go far in mitigating the inherent risks in migration, advancing equality in the workplace and promoting fair and sustainable development.”
Back in Kenya, Muthoni works with the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), educating women on their rights when they seek to migrate for work abroad.
Says Muthoni: “I need to share my experience with people who want to go so they can know” their rights.
In Mombasa, the labor broker’s announcement that jobs were available in Saudi Arabia resonated with Maria Makori Mwentenje.
“We were very poor. We had two children,” (age 10 and 1), Makori says, describing why she and her husband agreed that she should seek work in the Saudi Arabia. “We tried a small business and selling food, but that didn’t work. And there were no casual jobs available. We were hustling every day, but some days there was not enough to feed the family.”
Makori signed up with the labor broker but was not given a contract nor told her duties. Only at the airport did she learned she would be paid 18,000 Kenya shillings ($172) a month rather than the 23,000 ($221) she was promised. But even at that rate, she had to take a chance—it was not possible to earn that much in Kenya. She boarded the plane.
When she arrived in Saudi Arabia, she and other women traveling for work were taken to a room where their passports and travel documents were confiscated. Under the kefala system in Arab Gulf countries, migrant workers are tied to one employer, and it is illegal for them to get another job in the country. To ensure they do not leave, employers typically take their passports and often their mobile phones.
In Saudi Arabia, Makori was required to care for four children, including a baby. Working around the clock, her employer expected her to wake at all hours of the night to tend to the baby and still rise at 6 a.m. to prepare the family’s breakfast and get the children ready for school.
During her last pregnancy, Makori had developed hypertension, and in Saudi Arabia, the long hours, stress and difficult tasks exacerbated her condition. She experienced frequent headaches, and her body started to swell. Rather than take her to a doctor, her employer forced her to take pills, and she did not know what they were.
She was sexually harassed from the time she first walked into the employer’s house. When she contacted her husband and told him about the abuse, her husband went to the labor broker and asked why he sent his wife to such an employer. Rather than take steps to ensure Makori’s safety, the labor broker verbally abused her husband.
At one point, when she was too ill and tired to work, she told her employer she needed to rest. Enraged, the employer’s daughter entered the tiny space where Makori slept and after screaming at her, threw an iron at Makori, barely missing her head.
Fearing for her life, Makori fled to the police, where she was fortunate to encounter an officer who forced the family to return her passport and gave her money to travel. Unpaid for six months of work, she was grateful to return home with her life.
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