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.
Qatar firms’ failure to pay leaves migrant workers destitute – report that details how ‘Despite government measures, thousands left struggling during Covid outbreak as companies withhold salaries and benefits, research shows’
Companies in Qatar have failed to pay “hundreds of millions of dollars” in salaries and other benefits to low-wage workers since the coronavirus outbreak, according to new research by the human rights group Equidem.
In its report, Equidem describes how thousands of workers have been dismissed without notice, put on reduced wages or unpaid leave, denied outstanding salary and end of service payments, or forced to pay for their own flights home.
The report’s findings appear to amount to “wage theft” on an unprecedented scale, leaving “worker after worker” destitute, short of food and unable to send money home during the pandemic, in one of the richest countries in the world.Advertisement
“I came here to work for my family, not to be a beggar living on my own,” said a cleaner from Bangladesh, who said he had not received his salary for four months.
In separate research, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found that unpaid or delayed wages were cited by workers in 87% of cases of alleged labour abuse affecting almost 12,000 workers since 2016.
Equidem praises some measures put in place by the Qatar government during the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the government made it mandatory for companies to continue to pay workers in quarantine or government-imposed isolation, and set up a £625m loan scheme to help companies do so, but the report warns of “widespread failure to comply” with this and other regulations.
The government later permitted companies that had stopped operating due to Covid restrictions to put workers on unpaid leave or terminate their contracts as long as they complied with requirements of the labour law, including giving a notice period and paying outstanding benefits.
The report highlights a number of companies that exploited or ignored this directive. Up to 2,000 workers employed by one construction company were laid off on the spot, workers claim. Most did not receive their outstanding salary or end of service settlement, a payment equivalent to three weeks’ salary for each full year of work.
“Many migrant workers are in an extremely vulnerable position with no real ability to assert their rights or seek remedy for violations,” says the report.
Mustafa Qadri, the director of Equidem, said the lack of a lawful right to organise or join a trade union has been particularly damaging. “It has prevented workers from having a seat at the table with government and employers to negotiate an equitable share of funds,” he said.
The report describes similar findings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as policies in response to the pandemic which amount to racial discrimination. In both countries, the authorities required private companies to continue to provide wages and benefits to nationals, but allowed them to reduce wages or stop paying non-nationals.
In a statement, the Qatar government said its response to the pandemic, “has been driven by the highest international standards of public health policy and the protection of human rights”.
The government has provided free testing and treatment and said, “employers failing to pay their staff on time or withholding end of service payments have faced disciplinary action, including heavy fines and bans that prevent them from operating”.
Kuwait Times of 10 August 2020 published Govt, Assembly near deal on plan to cut expat numbers in Kuwait by B Izzak. The issue is as an old hat as any in the Gulf region, particularly in Kuwait where the migrant workers have been on its Parliament’s agenda for years. It is estimated that migrants, the majority of which come from Asia, make up more than 50% of the workforce and even as much as 90% in some countries in the region. Kuwait is no exception and at this conjecture, things have gone so far as to prompt, last week, a collective of international investors got in touch with 54 businesses operating in the region to ask what safeguards are in place for any migrant workers they employ, either directly or indirectly.
In any case here is Govt, Assembly near deal on plan to cut expat numbers .
KUWAIT: The government and the National Assembly appear to be nearing to approve a plan that envisages short-, mid- and long-term measures to drastically cut the number of expats in the country, with the government proposing to deport as many as 360,000 workers in the short-term.
Member of the Assembly’s manpower resources development committee MP Osama Al-Shaheen said the government’s plan calls to deport 120,000 illegal workers, 150,000 expats aged over 60 – employees, dependents or those suffering from chronic diseases – in addition to deporting 90,000 marginal and poorly-educated laborers.
The plan also proposes to cut tens of thousands of other expats through replacement, adopting technology and tightening the screws on recruitment, the lawmaker said. Shaheen said government plans show that the Kuwaiti population grew by 55 percent to 1.33 million between 2005 and the end of last year, while expats grew by more than 130 percent to 3.08 million during the same period.
Head of the committee MP Khalil Al-Saleh praised the government’s plan, presented to the panel by Minister of Social Affairs Mariam Al-Aqeel. He said the panel asked the minister to submit timelines for implementation, like setting an exact timetable for the next five years showing the size of cuts each year. He said the panel asked the government to submit legislation needed to implement the plan by the end of this week. This will allow the committee to complete its report next week and submit it to the Assembly for voting.
Saleh said the discussion with the minister focused on steps needed to introduce a quota system that creates a balance between communities and takes care of security requirements. He said the government’s plan is more than excellent as it provides many solutions regarding the numbers of expats, nationalities, domestic helpers and trafficking in persons.
The committee is also expected to review seven draft laws presented by MPs, all concerning measures to amend the population structure, currently tilted in favor of expats who make up 70 percent of the population. Shaheen said the government plan shows that one of the main problems for the small number of Kuwaitis in the private sector is the huge difference between benefits in the public and private sectors.
He said the plan shows that the average monthly salary for Kuwaiti males in the government is KD 1,769 and KD 1,265 for females, with 154 average monthly working hours. At the same time, average salaries in the private sector are KD 1,387 for Kuwaiti men and KD 835 for Kuwaiti women, with 187 monthly working hours, far more than the government sector. Shaheen said that the plan also shows that the state budget rose 15.5 percent with each 5 percent increase in the number of expats as a result of spending on health, subsidies and infrastructure.
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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