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Gulf agreement on improved migrant worker conditions unlikely to fend off activist pressure

By James M. Dorsey

Wealthy Gulf nations have agreed on measures to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers who constitute a substantial segment, if not the majority, in a number of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. The measures constitute a bid to fend off more far-reaching demands by human rights and trade union activists who no longer exclusively target Qatar because of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup but the region at large.

The measures agreed at a meeting of labour ministers of the GCC that groups Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, and 12 Asian labour supply nations, including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines, came amid a recent flurry of condemnatory reports by human rights organizations and trade unions. The reports tackle the plight of domestic workers in the Gulf and human rights in the UAE. A Human Rights Watch report on migrant labour in the Emirates is scheduled for publication in January.

An estimated 15 million migrant workers of which a majority hail from Asia are employed in the Gulf.

The agreement came days after Gulf states agreed on a standardized contract for domestic workers, the most vulnerable group of foreign workers because they often are not included in legal labour provisions. The new contract entitles domestic workers to a weekly day off, annual leave, a maximum eight-hour work day, and the right to live outside their employer’s house.

A series of recent incidents in Qatar suggests however that the new measures involving wage protection, speedier settlement of labour disputes, skill development and testing programs, and a pre-departure orientation for migrant workers fall short of the concerns of activists rooted in the region’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers.

The Gulf’s approach, said Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan, can “neatly be summarised as electronic wage payment + better housing + aggressive response to dissent. One would assume that the theory goes that better housing will get the western press off your back, ensuring payment will seriously reduce likelihood of protest, and collective deportations will send out a clear message to any workers giving thought to sticking their heads above the parapet. It's a badly conceived strategy.”

Mr. McGeehan was referring to the imminent deportation from Qatar of more than 100 South Asian workers who last month went on strike to protest low pay as well as poor working and living conditions. The workers charged that were paid less than the legal minimum wage in Nepal and were refused compensation if they fell ill. They said that once in Qatar they had been forced to replace contracts they had signed before their departure with blank agreements which meant they were being paid less than had been originally agreed and enjoyed fewer benefits such as a food allowance.

The deportation essentially makes the deportees the victims not only of contract violations by their employers but also of the fact that they stood up for their contractual rights. It also turns law enforcement and judicial authorities into the enforcers of the illegitimate practices of recruitment agencies and manpower suppliers. The ability to do so is rooted in the sponsorship system and the region’s determination to fend off demands for the right of workers to organize in independent trade unions.

Similarly, the detention of an American couple who had moved to Qatar so that the husband could work on a World Cup-related project of having murdered their eight-year old African-born adopted daughter, raises questions about the Qatari legal system and has implications for the debate about the kafala system. The couple, Matthew and Grace Huang, were prevented from leaving Qatar this weekend after an appeals court had overturned their convictions. The incident prolonged an almost two-year ordeal in which the United States repeatedly pressured Qatar to allow the couple to leave the Gulf state.

Zahir Belounis, a soccer player for a Qatari team until he had a labour conflict with his employer, Al Jaish, the soccer club of the Qatari military, discussed the potentially devastating effects of the kafala system in a recent interview with CNN. Prevented from leaving Qatar for 18 months because of the dispute, Mr. Belounis’ inability to play wrecked his career. A year after finally being allowed to leave Qatar, Mr. Belounis works as a waiter in a Paris restaurant. "I never did anything wrong but my life was ruined and for what? Perhaps I don't understand the seriousness of what I achieved in getting out and being able to tell my story. It's not just about me -- it's about all the people like me who have also suffered," Mr. Belounis said.

In a statement, the Gulf and Asian labour ministers welcomed an offer by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to assist in “preventing abuse in the recruitment process, protecting workers’ rights, improving regulation and strengthening oversight of private recruitment.”

To be fair, the agreement puts the onus as much on the Asian supplier nations as it does on Gulf states. A study by the Qatar Foundation, the institution that together with Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the World Cup, has adopted the region’s most far-reaching improved labour standards, set out ethical standards for the recruitment of foreign labour that are currently being violated not only in the Gulf but also in Asian countries that have an interest in exporting surplus labour.

“The issue of expatriate manpower cannot be effectively managed, and their protection and rights cannot be improved without a strong partnership between receiving and sending countries,” said UAE labour ministry undersecretary for policies and strategy Omar Al Nuaimi in a statement.

The new measures would oblige employers to pay salaries through bank transfers to ensure timely compensation and facilitate supervision. They would also standardize regionally a recent dispute resolution system established in Saudi Arabia that hosts two thirds of the migrant workers employed in the Gulf.

The measures constitute an improvement in the working and living conditions of migrant workers, but fail to address the fundamental issues posed by the kafala system as is evident from the case of the South Asian workers about to be deported from Qatar or the cases of the Huangs and Mr. Belounis. They also do not address restrictions on the ability of workers to change jobs or travel freely without the consent of their employers.

Those issues like the right to freely organize go not only to the core of the kafala system but of a repressive political system that is frozen in time because of both the vested interests of ruling elites and an often lopsided demography that inspires fear that granting rights to a majority for foreigners will lead to loss of culture and control of one’s state and society. It is a legitimate fear for which there are no immediate good solutions but one that Gulf states inevitably will have to confront.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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