An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) article advises the world about Protecting migrant workers in the Gulf: don’t build back better over a poor foundation
By Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org
The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states need to completely revamp past policies, and not merely attempt to bridge gaps or provide a salve to deep wounds.
As of February 2020, millions of migrants –– primarily from South and Southeast Asia and increasingly from East African countries –– were holding up Gulf economies, working in sectors and for wages unappealing to the more affluent citizens. In countries with per capita GDP of US$62,000 or more, minimum wages ranged as low as US$200 per month.
Men were packed into portacabins and decrepit buildings, six to a room if lucky, hidden behind screens of dust and grime, away from the smart buildings they built and shiny glasses they cleaned. The women were trapped 24/7 in homes that are their workplaces, every movement monitored. It is accepted and normalised without question that these men and women will leave behind their families in the hopes of building a better future for themselves. That they may live all their productive life in a strange country, excluded from social security benefits and denied all rights of belonging, is seen as a small price to pay for the supposed fiscal benefits. The fact that the price is too steep is rarely discussed.
“Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world?” #DevMattersTweet
Then came March, and a worldwide upheaval as the COVID-19 pandemic struck nations indiscriminately. The official response across the board ranged from well-meaning but knee-jerk, to discriminatory and short-sighted. Some of the strictest lockdowns were implemented in the most congested areas of Gulf cities, where migrants live. However, their labour was considered essential, as the process of nation-building could not be paused. Attempts to decongest were hopeful at best, but the majority continued to live in cramped quarters, were bussed into construction sites, and remained vulnerable to this new infection, as they had been to other infections and health perils.
The women, hundreds of thousands employed as domestic workers, have been invisible at the best of times because their ability to leave home and enjoy an off day or free time has always been at the discretion of their employers. The pandemic guidelines prevented even this thin leeway, with some countries explicitly prohibiting domestic workers from socialising, even when their employers were allowed to. Domestic workers, like a lot of other poorly-paid and badly-treated workers, were considered essential workers. With entire families working and studying from home, their workload increased exponentially. They were also exposed to strong chemical cleaning agents without proper protective gear. While their services were essential, even critical, the individual was considered dispensable and replaceable.
Force majeure rules allowed companies to reduce pay, terminate workers, or put them on leave without pay. Measures were introduced to ensure business continuity even if these measures infringed on workers’ rights. The lack of civil society and trade unions and inability to negotiate collectively –– all disempowering conditions that preceded the pandemic –– meant workers’ voices and representation were limited and muted. No mechanisms were established to challenge the unfair implementation of the measures. Access to justice was riddled with even more problems than before, as wage theft and other labour abuses from the pre-COVID era were yet to be resolved. This post is not even attempting to explore the vulnerabilities and exclusion of undocumented workers –– many of whom are forced into irregularity by the sponsorship or Kafala system.
“When a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.” #DevMattersTweet
In the plethora of webinars that consumed the early months of the pandemic, human rights advocates and activists repeatedly spoke of the lessons being learnt, the new normal that awaited us at the end of the dark tunnel, with ‘building back better’ punctuating every discourse. What they failed to recognise is that when a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.
In fact, we saw the opposite, with migrant workers being blamed for spreading infections, because of their living conditions over which they had no control over. Ten months into the pandemic, it is almost back to business as usual, with malls, offices, schools and even tourism, opening up in stages. Vaccination drives have begun, with a promise to include migrants in all of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries. But the most marginalised are still housed in deplorable conditions, their temporariness being reinforced. And the first sector that re-opened for recruitment was domestic work bringing in more women from impoverished countries reeling from the impact of the pandemic.
If there is one takeaway for human rights advocates it is that a socio-economic environment devastated by the pandemic is not fertile ground for righteous policies. If anything, origin and destination countries may go lax on due diligence over corporations in the name of business continuity and impose tighter controls over migrants under the pretext of protection.
“The last year has seen an increase in wage theft, and there is an urgent need for transnational mechanisms to deal with this.”#DevMattersTweet
There are key questions we need to ask ourselves and the governments:
Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world? What combination of policies and prejudices leads to this situation?
With so little public investment made in social welfare, the dependence on live-in domestic workers is only likely to increase. How do we ensure recognition of domestic work as work, and domestic workers as workers, formalising their status in the labour market?
How do we then break the monopoly of live-in domestic work that is inherently exploitative?
The ghettoisation of migrant labour is both the root cause and the result of discrimination. In many Gulf Co-operation Council states, migrants constitute the majority of the population and their needs are deliberately neglected in urban planning.
In the coming years, climate change, population imbalances and economic distress will increase migrants’ vulnerabilities, and solutions cannot be rooted in the current environment of inequity and discrimination.
The pandemic has helped boost digital marketplaces in the region, opines Muhammad Chbib, CEO at Tradeling.
7 November 2020
The pandemic has propelled the use of e-commerce in the region and globally. What are the key trends you have seen? The most significant trend is the growth of homegrown capabilities in e-commerce in the region. Globally, while e-commerce has been recording strong growth – accelerated no doubt by the pandemic – the region has witnessed a transformational growth in the evolution of the digital economy. Not only have our homegrown companies demonstrated strong resolve to meet the needs of the people and support them, we have seen a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship – with new startups entering the market and building their own niche.
The second trend is more consumers warming up to the possibilities offered by e-commerce. While digital commerce was gaining momentum, one of the factors that has stymied its growth in the region is the relatively lower credit card penetration in some markets. There have also been typical concerns associated with conducting everyday business online. However, one thing the pandemic has brought about is the adoption of digital payments and the increased confidence of consumers to shop online and conduct e-commerce transactions.
In the B2B e-commerce space, how high is the penetration in the GCC market? Has it grown significantly this year? While B2B e-commerce was evolving at a slower pace compared to consumer-oriented digital business, this year has witnessed a real transformation. I believe it is a case of supply and demand. What matters is that in the new reality, business customers too want to access products and services easily, quickly and efficiently. We see a growth in the B2B marketplace – here in the UAE – and growing enquiries from across the GCC.
Which are the verticals within the sector where you see most scope for growth? It is really a matter of bringing more options to the customer, whatever the vertical. Customers like to shop around and feel they get value for money and exemplary service. But it is also a matter of sourcing new products and services that aren’t in the region yet.
For those entering the digital B2B industry, what are the main challenges? The main challenges are finding the right talent with expertise and insights into the B2B sector, which is a different terrain compared to B2C e-commerce. An in-depth understanding of the global market is essential in addition to knowledge of the trading dynamics. You must be flexible and agile to overcome any unprecedented situation. It is also a matter of understanding the customer – the B2B customer is very different from the B2C customer.
Our priority is making the customer journey seamless, taking away their pain points and streamlining processes to ensure efficiencies that save them time and money.
Tradeling launched in April, in the midst of the lockdown – how was your experience? Do you have any immediate plans to expand? We created Tradeling during the pandemic to connect regional and global suppliers to MENA-based business demand. Today, we have close to 400 suppliers from over 25 countries with gross merchandising value increasing from zero to a high two-digit million figure in just three months.
The key to overcoming the challenges was to enhance market confidence and we took decisive steps in this regard. Today, we have gone from a team of 40 to nearly 100 people and we continue to hire.
From logistics to financing support to ensuring a fully secure payment gateway, we are the first of our kind B2B platform across the region. This is our USP and this integrated approach to business has enabled us to address the challenges.
Looking ahead, what is the future of digital marketplaces in the region? Digital marketplaces constitute the future of retail and in the new reality, they will record a stronger rate of growth compared to brick-and-mortar retail. But the key for success is to define your own unique niche for the marketplace; increasingly, we see online aggregators trying to capitalise on the opportunity, which will only lead to market fragmentation. What we need is bold, innovative ideas that will help accelerate the momentum of e-commerce growth in the region.COVID-19DIGITAL MARKETPLACEE-COMMERCEGCCTRADELING
The answer to What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region? is given by Keiko Miwa, Regional Director, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank and Jeremie Amoroso, Strategy & Operations Officer, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank.
The World Bank recently released the Human Capital Index 2020 (HCI). This update covers 174 countries—17 more than when the index was first launched in 2018. Not surprisingly, the HCI scores among MENA countries vary widely from 0.67 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to 0.37 in Yemen. Countries affected by conflict, such as Iraq and Yemen, score low on the index, which poses an important question on how to support the protection and enhancement of human capital even in the midst of conflict.
Looking at the 10-year trend, the HCI improved in 11 out of 14 MENA countries (with available data). Morocco, Oman, and the UAE registered the largest gains in the HCI during this period. School enrollment—at the preprimary and secondary levels—as well as harmonized test scores and adult survival, are the main drivers of the region’s HCI improvements. During this period, girls surpassed boys in educational attainment. On the other hand, enrollment declines in primary and lower-secondary school outweighed gains in other components of HCI for Kuwait, Tunisia, and Jordan.
Figure 1. Change in HCI 2020 and HCI 2020 in MENA countries
Source: World Bank. 2020. The Human Capital Index 2020 Update: Human Capital in the Time of COVID-19.
Note: Arrows indicate a decline in the HCI between 2010 and 2020. Data unavailable for Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and West Bank and Gaza for HCI 2010. See World Bank’s list of countries/economies by region.
WHAT’S NEW IN THE HUMAN CAPITAL INDEX 2020?
The HCI 2020 update introduces the Utilization-Adjusted Human Capital Index (UHCI). This is quite relevant in several MENA countries since there is a large gap between human capital and labor market outcomes. The utilization of human capital accounts for the fact that when today’s child becomes a future worker, she may not be able to find a job (Basic UHCI). And even if she can, it might not be a job where she can fully use her skills and cognitive abilities in better employment that increases her productivity (Full UHCI). When adjusting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed, MENA’s HCI value declines by at least one-third—from 0.57 to 0.32 (Basic UHCI) and 0.38 (Full UHCI). Low female labor force participation rates in MENA countries are a key factor for the region’s low Utilization-Adjusted HCI.
Figure 2. The average MENA HCI value declines by more than a third when accounting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed.
RISKS TO HARD-EARNED HUMAN CAPITAL
COVID-19 has cascaded into education shocks and the worst economic recession since World War II. At the height of the pandemic, almost 84 million children were out of school in MENA, and now countries that started to open schools are now reconsidering their decision due to the second wave. This could result in the loss of 0.6 years of schooling (adjusted for quality). Nevertheless, some MENA countries took early actions and adopted innovative measures to continue education. In Jordan, for example, the private sector and education officials collaborated to develop an education portal and dedicated TV channels for virtual lectures in Arabic, English, math, and science for grades one through 12. And Saudi Arabia’s universities achieved unprecedented results as more than 1.2 million users attended over 7,600 virtual classes, totaling 107,000 learning hours.
The HCI 2020 update uses data gathered as of March 2020—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves as a baseline for policymakers to track changes in human capital and inform policies to protect and invest in people through the pandemic and beyond. Previous pandemics and crises taught us that their effects are not only felt by those directly impacted, but often ripple across populations and, in many cases, across generations. COVID-19 is no exception. As a result, the region can—and must—build on its human capital progress amid the turmoil in three key ways.
First, the MENA region needs to continue building its human capital even during the pandemic or conflict. Crisis response measures that emerged out of necessity—such as distance learning and telemedicine—present new opportunities for building back better and differently the “new normal.”
Second, many countries in MENA have shown their sharp focus on protecting human capital by ramping up cash transfers and strengthening social safety nets since the onset of the pandemic. However, stronger efforts are still needed to preserve the human capital of internally displaced persons and refugees and to foster social inclusion for economic mobility.
Third, utilizing human capital is important to the immediate recovery and long-term development of MENA—the region with the highest youth unemployment in the world at more than 25 percent. Utilizing human capital requires job-focused policies as concerns about the future of work grow louder.
The HCI 2020 update shows that many MENA countries have made meaningful human capital progress over the past 10 years. As the pandemic threatens these precious gains, investment in human capital is more important than ever. Governments in MENA have launched promising initiatives that will help to build a better future. When today’s children in MENA become adults, hopefully, they will see how their region of the world turned the unprecedented crisis in 2020 into an opportunity to build stronger human capital.
UAE’s migrant workers fret over future in coronavirus economy; that is according to my reading, perhaps about their own future in the Gulf region, particularly in the UAE during and above all after the passing of the pandemic. It must be reminded that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) successfully launched its Mars mission dubbed “Al Amal”, or “Hope”, on July 20, 2020.
In the meantime, here is the original Reuters article that covers this traumatic period in the life of those numerous migrant workers in the UAE.
DUBAI (Reuters) – When Kapil left his Nepali village for an airport job packing cargo in the United Arab Emirates, he thought he was securing a future for himself and his family.
But less than a year after arriving in the Middle East trade and tourism hub, he questions whether it was the right decision after learning there would be no work this month.
“I’m totally hopeless,” said 29-year-old Kapil, whose wife and five-year-old son are in Nepal.
The coronavirus crisis has taken a heavy toll on the economies of the oil-rich Gulf, heavily reliant on low-paid foreign workers.
They are the backbone of the Gulf economies, taking jobs in construction, services and transport, and are now facing the realities of the pandemic.
Reuters spoke to over 30 workers like Kapil in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, who all said they are now enduring hardship due to coronavirus.
Many have racked up debt and would go hungry without the help of charities as they wait for work and to be paid.
Some said they found little reason to stay without work and wanted to return to their home countries despite being owed months of wages; hundreds of thousands have already left.
The treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf has come under greater scrutiny, with human rights groups saying conditions have deteriorated because of the pandemic.
In the UAE, most attractive because of the economic opportunities it offers, there is no social safety net for foreigners, who make up about 90% of the population.
A laundry service worker from Cameroon told Reuters he had not been paid in months and was now selling fruit and vegetables on the street earning 30 to 40 dirhams a day ($8-$11).
The UAE government communication office did not respond to emailed questions about migrant worker welfare.
In May, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the Gulf state was committed to protecting the rights of all workers, state news agency WAM reported.
Those in blue collar jobs are the most vulnerable. They are paid low wages, work long hours and often live in cramped dormitories that have been coronavirus hotbeds.
Many also pay fees to recruiters in their home country, a practice common for low paying jobs in the Gulf.
Kapil, who said he paid a recruiter 175,000 Nepali rupees ($1,450) for his UAE job, is not sure when he will work again.
His employer told staff they would only be paid when they worked and it was unclear whether there would be any work next month, he said.
Kapil said he had been earning around $600 a month – six times more than his teacher salary in Nepal – working up to 12 hours a day, six days a week at the airport.
He said not working had left him stressed and unable to provide for his wife, child and elderly parents in Nepal.
Kapil, who showed his employment contract and other documents to Reuters, asked that his full name not be published and his employer not identified over fears he could face repercussions.
Arriving in the UAE last October, Kapil thought he would work at the airport for a few years before finding a better job, possibly using his teaching skills.Slideshow (4 Images)
Now he just hopes to work until the end of the year to pay back his loans.
“The global economy is getting worse and it’s affecting each and every business … I think during this time it’s hard to find any other job.”
No official statistics of how many people have left the UAE are available. But at least 200,000 workers, mostly from India but also from Pakistan, the Philippines and Nepal, have left, according to their diplomatic missions.
Sectors like construction and retail were struggling even before the crisis, which exacerbated hardship for workers already exposed to payment delays.
Mohammed Mubarak has not been paid for around 11 months for security work at a Dubai theme park.
“The company doesn’t know when they’ll be able to pay us, and we are suffering,” the Ghanaian said.
Government coronavirus restrictions that forced many businesses to shutter for weeks began to ease in May. Shopping centres, water parks, bars and restaurants – all staffed by migrant workers – are once again open, raising hopes.
Zulfiqar, a Pakistani in Dubai for 12 years, sent his family home early in the outbreak but stayed on hoping for work, sharing a room and what cash he has with a dozen other unemployed men.
Dnyanesh Kamat, Political analyst inColumns on Black Lives Matter across the MENA region states that From Basra to Beirut and from Tunis to Tel Aviv, anti-Black racism exists in various forms across the region. Here it is :
Black Lives Matter: Racism in the Middle East and North Africa — and how to combat it
29 June 2020
While much of the Western world remains convulsed with Black Lives Matter protests, the Mena (Middle East and North Africa) region should use this moment to address its own anti-Black racism problem. From Basra to Beirut and from Tunis to Tel Aviv, anti-Black racism exists in various forms across the region.
In the Mena region, it is mostly the consequence of centuries of slavery, with Black Africans enslaved and sold in slave markets across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf. Indeed, in some parts of the Gulf, slavery was abolished only as recently as the 1970s. This is also why racial insults hurled at Black people in these countries often refer to them as “slaves” or “servants.”
This racist mindset also leads to widespread systemic discrimination against Black people throughout the region. Basra in southern Iraq is home to the majority of the country’s estimated 1.2 million Black population. Black Iraqis have long complained of systemic racism, with limited access to housing, education, healthcare and all but the most menial jobs.
While Black communities in some Mena countries grapple with the legacy of slavery, others still face modern-day slavery or conditions akin to it. Mauritania is one of the last countries on the planet where slavery continues to this day. The Global Slavery Index of 2018 estimates there are approximately 90,000 Black Mauritanians, or roughly 2.4 per cent of the population, bound to a caste system that is a form of modern-day slavery, with their enslavement inherited from ancestors and passed down to their children. Slavery was abolished in 1981 but it was not until 2007 that it was made a crime, and that too in response to international pressure, with successive governments failing to eradicate the scourge.
A similar caste-like Black community exists at the margins of society in Yemen. They call themselves the Muhamasheen (“the marginalized”), but other Yemenis refer to them pejoratively as the Akhdam (“the servants”). Many survive by begging. Needless to say, this community has borne the brunt of Yemen’s ongoing civil war.
While countries like Mauritania and Yemen grapple with centuries-old practices, others have seen slavery rear its ugly head in modern times. Black Africans have long used Libya’s long Mediterranean coast as a staging post from which to attempt to reach Europe. Several migrants have been enslaved and tortured by Libyan militias, and subsequently sold in open-air slave markets.
Popular culture in the Mena region is also rife with anti-Black racism, from caricatures of Black people used for comedy to erasing them completely from depictions of national culture. The national media in countries like Tunisia portray the country’s citizens as light-skinned. It might come as a shock that 15 per cent of Tunisians are black.
Iran has a sizeable Black population living along the country’s southern coast. Their contribution to the culture of that region – whether in terms of cuisine, spirituality or to the unique bandari music – is immense. But Iranian popular culture would have us believe the country is populated only by fair-skinned Persians. This comes largely from the “Aryan myth” of Iranian nationalism. Depictions of Black people are limited to stereotypes or pale-skinned people in “blackface” – theatrical make-up used to portray racist caricatures of Black people. Indeed, early Iranian theatre often featured a type of comedy performance known as Siah Baazi, a term meaning “playing black.”
In the Arab world, more recently, several Arabic-language networks have come in for criticism for their racist depiction of Black people in hidden camera-practical joke reality television shows.
Almost a year ago, protesters marched through cities in Israel calling for an end to anti-Black police brutality and discrimination in housing, healthcare and education. One of the most horrifying examples of anti-Black racism in Israel occurred in 2016 when the government admitted to having given Ethiopian-Israeli women long-term contraceptives without their consent. The community’s birth rate has halved over the past decade.
Perhaps the most egregious form of institutionalized racism in the Mena region is the kafala system of hiring migrant workers in Lebanon and parts of the Gulf, which has been described as a modern-day form of slavery. The kafala system, which is not covered by regular labour laws in Lebanon, gives employers total control over the legal residency of “their” workers. Every so often, horrific kafala-related stories emerge of migrant workers, most of them African, being made to work long hours without pay, tortured, sexually abused and even murdered, with little or no recourse to the law for help. Racism also pervades the tourism and hospitality sector in Lebanon and parts of the Gulf, with African and South Asian tourists complaining of being denied entry to trendy bars and clubs.
If there is to be any impetus for change in the Mena region, it is likely to come from civil society. For example, recent protests against Lebanon’s corrupt political class were led by the youth of the country and included calls to abolish kafala. In 2018, Tunisia became the first Mena country to pass a wide-ranging anti-racism law.
But much more needs to be done. Mena countries need to rethink their concept of nationalism, redefine the meaning of citizenship and re-negotiate the social contract between citizen and state. If there is to be any hope of dismantling racism and every vestige of slavery in the region, those are fundamental imperatives. Let the Black Lives Matter movement be the catalyst.
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