General: Migrant workers face racism, hate and lack of health care across the Gulf and neighbouring countries
This post was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the MENA region.
Migrant workers in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries have been subjected to a fierce campaign calling for them to be deported from the countries in which they have been working, while also facing racist speeches and hatred. They are left alone to face the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic without support, including no access to medical care or unions, according to research by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).
Migrant workers in Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Bahrain have over the years been subjected to massive violations through the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system that strips them of their basic civil and human rights. They have no right to move, travel or change work, little access to health care, and no right to union representation or to form organisations. In addition, migrant workers are denied the right to citizenship, even if they spend their whole lives working in these countries.
The kafala system, which enshrines discrimination and exploitation, contradicts the principles of human rights and modern work systems that are guaranteed under the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and Members of their Families, signed in 1990. This Convention entered into force on 1 July 2003, after being ratified by 20 states, but has not been signed by the Gulf states and Lebanon.
In light of the collapse of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar and the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant workers in Lebanon, especially domestic workers, face extremely harsh conditions. The Lebanese labour law does not protect domestic workers, who are usually women, as they are subject to the sponsorship system that links the legal status of the worker in the country with a contractual relationship with the employer. At the end of this relationship, the workers lose their legal status and face the risk of detention and deportation even if their rights have been violated. Likewise, under this notorious sponsorship system, they can only change their place of work with the consent of their employer, and this exposes them to exploitation, forced labour, and human trafficking.
The number of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon stands at 250,000, most of them women, who immigrated from different countries, notably Ethiopia. The main picture is of Ethiopian domestic workers gathering in front of their country's consulate in Beirut while waiting to return to their home country. Some of them left work after being paid in Lebanese pounds, which do not provide enough to meet the requirements of daily life and make it impossible to send any amount to their families in Ethiopia. Others left work who were paid no money in the past several months. Their status has become illegal and needs a speedy solution from the competent authorities.
The crisis has cast a shadow over all migrant workers from different countries such as Egypt, Ghana, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, in addition to Ethiopia, as is evident in this BBC news report. They have suffered the consequences of the ongoing economic crisis and pandemic which have caused their salaries to decrease by half with the drop in the value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar. Some of them lost their work and their employers left them in the street or in front of the entrances to their embassies, while a large number still face harsh exploitation because of the sponsorship system, resulting in low wages, long working hours, and lack of proper health care.
The current sponsorship system is a form of slavery in the twenty-first century. It contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for many years, various human rights organisations called for it to be abolished and for the civil and human rights of women migrant workers to be protected. In 2012, an independent Lebanese civil society organisation called Stop Violence and Exploitation published a special study on the sponsorship system and its disadvantages, calling for an alternative system to stop the exploitation of women migrant workers and provide them with the required legal protection and freedom to choose their place of work.
It is important for all foreign workers in Lebanon to be covered by the Labour Law in order to protect their rights, in addition to giving them the full right to establish trade unions that defend their rights.
On 28 May 2020, blogger Reem Al-Shammari posted a video on Snapchat, attacking Egyptians working in Kuwait with an unprecedented violence. She said, "Kuwait is for Kuwaitis, not for Egyptians." She added, "You are hired. Understand ... Egyptians are not partners with Kuwaitis in the homeland." Although the video has encountered widespread opposition from Kuwaiti citizens, it is part of the growing phenomenon of hate speech on social media sites monitored by GCHR in some Gulf countries, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in the sharp decline in oil prices. Some of these speeches have even illogically linked the presence of migrant workers in these societies to the spread of COVID-19. Moderate voices have been raised to defend migrant workers and their achievements as a result of their hard work over the years.
It is clear to observers that the dual crises of low oil prices and theCOVID-19 pandemic have prompted Gulf countries to reassess their policies regarding the numbers of migrant workers, and many companies have laid off thousands and started deporting those who work without legal permission.
On 03 June 2020, in a press interview, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al-Hamad Al-Sabah noted that 70% of the population (or about 3.4 million) out of about 4.8 million people was foreign, and said that this amount should be reduced to half in stages. He concluded that “we have a future challenge to address the demographic imbalance."
Of greatest concern is that addressing this imbalance in the demographics referred to by the Kuwaiti Prime Minister will mean the indiscriminate layoffs of thousands of migrant workers and their deportation after they have been stripped of their civil and human rights or exploiting them so that they work more hours and receive much less payment than they deserve.
On 05 May 2020, in an episode of the programme “We Are All Responsible” presented on the official Saudi TV channel, the host, Khaled Al-Aqili, said, “Unfortunately, the control of expatriate workers over the economy has become a real threat to national security and not only on the economic side, but beyond much of that.” He concluded, “We must stop making the Saudi employee a scapegoat with every crisis, and make the expatriate workers, who replaced Saudi workers - who are more efficient than them, the first to be dispensed of, not the sons of the homeland.”
This was preceded by a ministerial decision issued on 03 May 2020, to regulate labour contracts during the period of compelling circumstance related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included the approval of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development for employers in the private sector to reduce the salaries of employees to 40% of the full wage for a period of six months. In addition, employment contracts may be terminated six months after the application of the rules related to the ongoing compelling circumstances.
There is no doubt that promoting discourse that directly targets foreign workers on the official TV channel of the Kingdom and portraying them as a threat to national security will stir up racist feelings and hostility against foreign workers. Justifying this sentiment in the name of defending citizens’ rights at the expense of migrant workers will only fan the flames of hatred and bigotry. What is required from official channels is to promote calls that urge citizens to embrace migrant workers who have contributed to the country's renaissance with their sincere efforts. The authorities must protect migrants’ rights so that they can return to the countries from which they emigrated with dignity and after a fair agreement with employers. This is a basic requirement for a civilised state that respects the rights of all, whether they are citizens or expatriates.
United Arab Emirates
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, press reports have confirmed the prevalence of the disease among migrant workers in the UAE due to their lack of effective means of protection as well as the lack of social distancing between people, who live in crowded common areas and in densely populated commercial neighborhoods.
A letter sent by a coalition of 16 non-governmental organisations and trade unions, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 10 April 2020 to the UAE Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation Affairs, Nasser bin Thani Al-Hamli, states that the authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Low-wage migrant workers remain acutely vulnerable to severe human rights violations, that increase their risk of infection from COVID-19," the letter said.
On 26 March 2020, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation issued an arbitrary ministerial decree (decree number 279) that only targets migrant workers in light of the spread of the novel Coronavirus, thus violating their most basic rights. With this decree, the UAE freed the hand of private companies to amend contracts of migrant workers or force them on unpaid leave or to accept permanent or temporary salary reductions. This decision legally protects companies 100% as the expatriate workers have no right to complain or resort to the courts if their rights are violated by the employer.
GCHR has received for many years reliable reports confirming that migrant workers in Qatar do not enjoy any of their basic rights, including the formation of unions to defend their rights, in addition to being exploited in heavy work for long hours while getting paid low salaries that are not commensurate with their efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed another chronic problem – that they suffer from a lack of health care and adequate housing, therefore the infections have spread among them. The drop in oil prices has led to the layoff of thousands of migrant workers, leaving them without money or work and forcing them to look in the empty streets for food.
In a statement published on 15 April 2020, Amnesty International said that the Qatari authorities had arrested and expelled dozens of foreign workers after informing them that they would be tested for COVID-19 infection.
On the evening of 23 May 2020, 100 foreign workers demonstrated in Doha to protest non-payment of their wages by the authorities in Qatar.
Local sources confirmed to GCHR that migrant workers who work in the facilities for the World Cup 2020 that will be held in Qatar suffer from widespread violations of their rights, including being paid very low salaries to work hard for long hours under the hot sun. They are denied the right to terminate their contracts and return to their home countries. A recent report issued by Amnesty International UK on 10 June 2020 confirmed these conditions and mentioned workers who have not been paid for seven consecutive months.
Bahrain is following in the footsteps of other Gulf countries in targeting migrant workers. On 05 June 2020, a member of the parliament, Ghazi Al-Rahma, announced that he and a number of deputies would present a proposal to amend the labour law in the private sector, stipulating that the priority in the recruitment process in the private sector be reserved for Bahraini citizens, and that the priority when terminating employment would be for foreign workers. This statement has received widespread attention in the various pro-government and state-owned media, and there is no doubt that it will lead to migrant workers losing the basic rights to obtain the appropriate work and salary. In addition, it may generate aversion to them in society instead of honouring them for having left a life behind in order to contribute to building Bahrain.
GCHR calls on the authorities in the Gulf and neighbouring countries to:
- Abolish the kafala (sponsorship) system and enact new labour laws that respect the civil and human rights of migrant workers, including them to form and join unions and associations;
- Ratify the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and Members of their Families and develop a strategy to implement its provisions to ensure effective and comprehensive protection of the rights of migrant workers and members of their families;
- Legislate modern immigration systems that allow migrant workers to integrate and become citizens with all the rights and duties in the societies to which they have migrated;
- Adopt an integrated program to remedy the situation of undocumented migrant workers and conduct ongoing inspections to ensure that employers do not exploit and abuse migrant workers, whether legal or illegal;
- Provide full health care to migrant workers in a manner that ensures their protection against communicable diseases and epidemics; and
- Eliminate all forms of discrimination, as well as policies that distinguish between workers in different sectors, whether they are citizens or migrant workers.