UAE housemaid’s case highlights vulnerability of region’s foreign workers to exploitation.
|The ILO called for “major reform” of the sponsor or “kafala” system, which has been criticised as bonded labour [EPA]|
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has urged Gulf countries to protect millions of migrant workers by reforming the sponsorship system and introducing a minimum wage.
The ILO also called for foreign workers to be permitted to form representative organisations, so that they would have the possibility to seek justice if their rights are violated.
The recommendations were issued on Sunday at the end of a one-day symposium at which two studies on migrant workers in the Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were released.
“It is important that an introduction of a fair minimum wage be considered,” in line with international labour principles, the ILO said, suggesting a monthly wage of $215 for Kuwait.
The ILO also called for a “major reform” of the sponsor or “kafala” system, which has been criticised as bonded labour by human rights groups. Gulf nations should consider foreign labourers as migrant workers rather than guest workers, it said.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Gulf countries in April to stop requiring migrant workers to secure local sponsors, saying the system fosters abuses.
In Kuwait, immigration regulations allow for criminal charges against workers who leave their jobs, while in Saudi Arabia and Qatar workers must have their employers’ permission to get exit visas to leave the country.
The ILO estimates that there are 15 million migrant workers in the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states, making up about 40 per cent of the total population.
The GCC groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Foreigners form a majority of the workforce – and, in some cases, of the population – in most of the GCC states, according to the ILO.
The organisation said GCC countries should consider extending social protection to foreign workers as this would improve their employment conditions.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, points to the many challenges low-wage workers frequently face in the region, including unpaid wages, indebtedness from recruitment fees leading to forced labour and hazardous conditions.
For women working as domestic maids, physical abuse is also a serious concern.
The ILO’s plea coincides with growing debate in some of the home countries over how to protect the rights of the many Asian women who travel to the Gulf to work as maids.
Many cases of the alleged torture of domestic workers from countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have emerged in recent months, in what Amnesty International has called “the tip of the iceberg” of the “systematic abuse” – ranging from indentured labour to physical assault and sexual abuse – suffered by domestic servants.
Gulf states “have to take steps to put an end to this horrific treatment of migrant domestic workers, by immediately removing the legal climate of impunity that allows employers to exploit, enslave, abuse, assault and injure their domestic workers with virtual impunity” Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in November.