Brussels (Brussels Morning) Migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf region were discussed today by the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula.
The event comes as the European Parliament debates a due diligence process designed to ensure that countries and companies using abusive workplace practices are signalled out. The legislative initiative report calls for a binding EU law ensuring companies are held accountable and liable when they harm – or contribute to the abuse of – human rights, the environment and good governance. Such a law should also guarantee that victims have access legal remedies.
MEPs Hannah Neumann (Greens) and Marc Tarabella (S&D) led the virtual meeting that featured international and European organisations, NGOs working with migrants in the Gulf region, and representatives from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Also present were representatives of the International Labour Organisation, the European Trade Unions Confederation, and representatives of the “justice for the wage campaign” run by legal activists and migrant stakeholders.
Focus on the Kafala system
Participants in the debate called for an end to the Kafala system, highlighting how this legal regime creates an asymmetry between migrant employees and their “sponsors”-employers in the Gulf region, particularly in the construction and domestic service sectors.
All Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) require a foreigner entering their respective countries to have a kafeel or sponsor. Both Kuwait and Qatar avoid the word kafil and refer instead to the “recruiter”. Qatar and Kuwait allow self-sponsorship in certain cases, such as when it applies to financial investors or academics.
A central feature of the Kafala system is that once an immigrant has entered the country under the aegis of a specific sponsor, this cannot be changed without the explicit consent of the sponsor in question. The law requires a non-objection certificate (NOC) everywhere, except Qatar, which abolished the practice in August 2020. Furthermore, foreigners cannot leave a GCC country without their sponsor’s consent.
This asymmetrical relationship often allows for exploitative and poorly regulated working conditions, which can range from underpayment and non-payment of due wages, or failure to provide workers with identification, to difficult and dangerous working conditions, and overcrowded and substandard living conditions.
“We’ve been very concerned now for more than a decade about the modern slavery context happening in most Gulf States”, the Secretary-General of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Sharon Burrow said.
“If you have a system of migrant worker regulation, you’re effectively owned by another person”, Burrow pointed out, denouncing the fact that a migrant worker cannot leave the country without permission,” she added.
An agenda for change
MEP Tarabella described migrant worker conditions as “a major issue” that has attracted the attention of the public opinion in the past —“both in the Gulf and in Europe”.
Participants to the event called for the affirmation of a workers’ rights benchmark in GCC countries where more than 80% of the workforce is foreign born.
Beyond the necessary legal reforms, the issue at hand is access to justice and the enforcement of contractual rules. According to the representative of the International Organisation on Migration, Roula Hamati, notes that policy implementation leaves a lot to be desired as reforms do not address the fundamental imbalance of power between employers and employees.
She also flagged the struggle migrant workers face when seeking access to justice in the Gulf countries as a major concern.
“It’s very difficult for migrants in the Gulf to be in a position to access justice. It’s the result of impunity”, she added.
The IOM representative went on to advocate for migrant worker mobility too.
Systematic challenges, including cultural aspects, are related to the whole problem that leaves migrant workers in the Gulf exposed to increased vulnerability, IOM maintained.
The International Labour Organisation’s Houtan Homayounpour called for “solid laws that are linked to international conventions”, insisting that such implementation is fundamental.
“All revolutionary changes in the labour market take time”, Homayounpour observed.
Qatar leads positive change
Inclusive processes that engage stakeholders have yielded results in countries with determination to make a positive turn. ILO representative, Hatoum Homoayounpour, hailed “amazing results” in the case of Qatar that is moving away from the Kefala system, engaging with NGOs, trade unions, the UN system, and the country’s legislators.
Positive developments in Qatar were echoed by the ETUC Secretary General Sharon Burrow, who expressed her disbelief in Emirati criticism over labour practices in the countdown to the 2022 World Cup, while the UAE fails to follow through with reforms in its construction and tourism sectors. “That is unacceptable,” she noted.
“We’ve seen some improvement in Qatar, where some legislation is taking place to tear down the Kafala system”, ETUC’s Secretary-General acknowledged.
“Freedom for workers to voice and to negotiate work issues is starting to happen,” Sharan Burrow pointed out.
Burrow also noted there are positive developments in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi, particularly as regards to contractual transparency, but pointed to commitments that have yet to be fulfilled.
The Qatari spokesperson, Hassan Al-Thawadi, conceded that “there’s still work ahead”.
However, he maintained that his country is well on track in respecting the rights of the migrant work force, ensuring free healthcare and cooperation with international organisations.
“Qatar’s commitment to improve labour rights is continuously increasing”, Al-Thawadi said.
The Ambassador of Bahrain, Bahiya Aljishi, defended her country’s record of labour rights, recalling that the country has now introduced a flexi-visa scheme in that enhances freedom of movement for foreign workers.
Expats, she pointed out, are allowed to work as freelancers and, since 2015, the country has operated the expat protection centre to help foreigners in need of medical and psychological assistance. “Free comprehensive medical care and vaccination includes everyone in Bahrain”, Aljishi stated.
International stakeholders are still concerned about working conditions during the pandemic. The IOM drew attention to the additional strain COVID-19 is placing on the migrant workforce in the Gulf region.
“Jobs’ crisis is also a wages crisis, many workers were not paid since the start of the pandemic. This was on a large scale and unfortunately it is continuing”, Hamati stated.
“Many workers have lost their jobs with COVID-19, and were repatriated without due process”, the Regional Coordinator of the Migrant Forum in Asia, William Gois, asserted, noting that the issue is underreported by the media.