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.
The global crackdown on human rights, especially worker rights, coupled with rising inequality are disproportionately affecting marginalized populations around the world. At the same time, the rules are skewed to promote profit, deregulation and the expansion of corporate power over people. The answer, said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, is a global, social-justice labor movement that “stands up and fights back.”
“[T]he restoration of democracy and the building of more just societies needs to be the primary business of all our labor movements,” she said
Bader-Blau spoke to about 100 Cornell students, faculty and the general public in her role as ILR’s 2019 Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence—a multifaceted program that recognizes U.S. and global labor leaders and brings them into Cornell classrooms and the public stage to share their knowledge and expertise. During her time at Cornell—sponsored by the ILR Worker Institute as part of the university’s 2019 Union Days program—Bader-Blau met with students, student labor organizations, ILR and other university faculty, and visited the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC) in downtown Ithaca.
The challenges Bader-Blau described “are ones that our students will confront as they study and think about how to shape the future of work and labor,” said Alexander Colvin, ILR Interim Dean and Martin F. Scheinman Professor of Conflict Resolution.
Each year, Cornell’s ILR Worker Institute invites a union activist to visit as the Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence to give ILR students the opportunity to learn from the knowledge and experience of labor leaders who reflect the diversity of the labor movement. The ILR School of Cornell University is focused on work, employment and labor policy issues through teaching, research and advocacy outreach.
Previous Alice B. Grant Labor Leaders in Residence include AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, former Pride at Work Co-President Nancy Wohlforth and former Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) Regional Secretary Tony Ehrenreich.
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) this week celebrated the relaunch of a migrant worker office within its headquarters to help address legal cases related to wage theft or other forms of exploitation brought by migrant workers, including domestic workers, in the country. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s 4.5 million residents are migrant workers, including approximately 660,000 domestic workers.
Domestic worker volunteers from Sandigan-Kuwait, a domestic worker rights organization for Filipino workers, and GEFONT Support Group-Kuwait, an organization for Nepali workers in Kuwait associated with the General Federation of Nepali Trade Unions (GEFONT), will staff the office, encouraging workers to drop in or call to report abuse and request legal assistance from KTUF.
“Nepali laborers abroad have been facing constant suffering, while legal and social rights are not implemented,” says GEFONT Support Group-Kuwait President Ganesh Rawat.
This is the first time that migrant organization volunteers have been invited to participate in the operations of KTUF’s migrant worker office. With support from the Solidarity Center, KTUF will be able to increase its assistance with migrant worker-initiated legal cases.
“The migrant workers’ office opens its doors to all representatives of migrant worker communities, in all categories, to receive complaints,” says KTUF Assistant Secretary General Obeid Menahi Al Ajmi. The federation, he continues, will devote all its resources and tools to support migrant workers, in coordination with the country’s domestic worker department.
The project can be “the avenue on helping each other for the betterment of everyone,” says Sandigan-Kuwait, volunteer organizer, Chito Neri.
Kuwait has been recognized for some important progress on migrant worker issues. A new domestic worker law adopted in 2015, the first in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, brought the country closer to compliance with internationally recognized labor standards and included a minimum wage and a maximum 12-hour workday, with one day off per week, for migrant workers such as maids, babysitters, cooks and drivers. Kuwait and the Philippines last year signed a new deal that prohibits common employment practices for migrant workers in the Gulf region, including confiscation of passports by employers.
Given ongoing challenges, unions say that protection of migrant worker rights requires cross-border, collective action. KTUF last month signed a cooperative agreement in Kuwait City with the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K), formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait. KTUF signed a cooperation agreement with the Nepalese Workers’ Union in April last year, committing to joint action in support of worker rights.
The KTUF is an important actor at the national policy level, maintaining a vigorous presence in deliberations on proposed labor law reform, economic restructuring, trade union rights and democratic freedoms. The Solidarity Center supports Kuwaiti unions’ active role in cross-regional collaborations, as well as capacity building programs for Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) affiliates in the civil service and oil sectors.
Following the deadly mining dam collapse in January that buried alive 186 workers and residents of the town of Brumadinho, Brazil, and concurrent legislative attacks on worker rights, unions representing members across Brazil are requesting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) investigate and address both issues.
The Vale-owned dam, which sat above Brumadinho, was held back by little more than walls of sand and silt, and is among 87 similarly constructed mining dams in the country. More than 131 people have not been found, and the “tidal wave of waste and mud that engulfed homes, businesses and residents” also wreaked enormous damage to the environment. The United Nations has said the disaster “must be investigated as a crime.”
The Brumadinho collapse, one of the worst mining disasters in the country’s history, follows a 2015 iron-ore dam collapse at another Vale mine that killed 19 people. Both catastrophes are the direct result of the privatization of Brazilian companies, a process that often results in precarious and dangerous working conditions, says Maximiliano Nagl Garcez, an attorney representing the unions.
Privatization in Brazil’s strategic sectors “means disrespect for international treaties, a threat to the country’s national and energy sovereignty and, above all, an enormous risk to the health and safety of thousands of workers at risk with negligence to their condition, to the detriment of an ever-increasing profit in the interests of large multinationals,” he says. Garcez will present the unions’ requests for investigations during the IACHR meeting in Jamaica in May.
Most recently, the government enacted a “temporary law,” a measure typically reserved for emergencies, that changes the process of union dues collection. The impact of the new law is clear, says Garcez: It will destroy the financial viability of trade unions, undercutting their ability to effectively oppose the anti-worker government. These and other measures are a direct threat to workers’ right to freedom to form unions, he says.
The Central Union of Workers in Brazil (CUT) and other unions and organizations are requesting the IACHR address the attacks on worker rights, and Garcez requested hearings during upcoming IACHR investigations.
The Brazilian Bar Association this week challenged the measure to change union dues collection, and the country’s supreme court will hold a hearing on its constitutionality next week.
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