International Worker’s Day celebrates how far we have come in terms of securing social and economic rights of workers around the world, but also a reminder of how much more needs to be done.
The United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families defines a migrant worker as, “a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.”
The Middle East has been a sought after destination for migrant workers from South Asia since the 70s. An International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate puts the number of foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE, at 9.5 million, and about 7.5 million of these belong to Asia.
The multidimensional implications and reasons for migration of South Asian laborers to the Middle East are worth pondering. A research paper titled “Migrant Workers and Xenophobia in the Middle East” (UN Research Institute for Social Development) analyzes trends in migration to countries in the Middle East. The report expounds on how the development plans resulting from the oil price boom in the Gulf States in 1973 prompted the GCC countries to attract workers from abroad. Though initially there were Arab workers from the Gulf Cooperation Council states, very soon the demand could not be met without inviting more workers from Asian nations. These workers became the major contributors to the inexpensive, efficient and diligent work force over a short period of time. Their willingness to work on a temporary status also made them the preferred choice of the Arab States concerned about citizenship issues.
The report acknowledged that the Asian governments supporting their recruitment agencies were enthusiastic for their workers to take this opportunity in order to ease the pressure of unemployment and to contribute in stimulating economies of home countries. According to this research paper, “in 1999 total remittances to Sri Lanka from workers abroad totalled $1 billion, which constituted around 20 per cent of foreign goods imports for the previous year and more than the trade deficit of $0.7 billion.”
Initially, the workers were satisfied since many of them were able to enjoy a relatively higher standard of living because of better-paid jobs than they would have at home living on $2/day. However, the report acknowledged that despite being hard working and efficient, Asians ended up with the raw end of the deal because as temporary contract workers they were not protected under any UN or ILO conventions, or local labor laws. Moreover, their dangerous and difficult jobs also became associated with these migrant workers to such a degree that locals refused to accept them, despite compelling poverty and unemployment. The governments involved have often been accused of not making a serious effort to improve conditions for migrants for fear of affecting the demand, and hence their economy.
Migrant workers, whether working as gardeners, domestic workers, construction workers or porters who left their homes in search of better futures have complained to Human Rights Watch activists of shattered dreams and hopes. The plight of these workers has been highlighted in reports by the Human Rights Watch over the years. Migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, lured by recruiters with promises of easy work and good living conditions, found realities on ground to be quite different. Since workers from poor families are usually illiterate they were ignorant of the loopholes in contracts that signed over their rights to legal redress, as well as agreeing to years of hard labor. Male migrant workers mostly work in construction, manufacturing and agricultural fields, while women prefer domestic work. A day’s shift for a worker may go up to 12 hours/day in hot and humid environment for an average of $8/day.
A report titled, “Dubai in a Jagged World” by Ahmed Kanna, a post doctoral fellow at the University of Iowa, describes how the passports are confiscated and workers housed in “closely watched camps, sorted into wage categories that seem to parallel their nationalities and shipped from these ‘company accommodations’ to their work sites in cramped company buses, their only means of transportation outside the camps.” Critics claim Dubai has largely ignored recommendations of UN on the issue of migrant workers, while companies remain resistant to reform when it involves spending money.
In some companies in Sharja, workers have shared shattered dreams living without proper plumbing, electricity or food, and ultimately, work. Faced with dire choices, absconding seems like an attractive option but it is effectively checked by confiscation of passports. Absconding used to be a big problem in Bahrain where accommodations are believed to be much worse, and unpaid wage issues causing serious tension. Employers blame the global economic downturn for delays in payment or for companies going bankrupt, and simply dump the workers without passports and wages. Though it is illegal in Bahrain to withhold wages and authorizes government to prosecute employers, it is a long and costly process and the workers choose instead to leave the country with help from their embassies. Human rights organizations are active and supportive of the migrant workers difficulties in dealing with abusive employers or recovery of wages and passports, but it is not an easy task and the results are not always in their favour.
Women from South Asia constitute a huge percentage of migrant workers. Their condition is much worse as they work mostly as domestic workers, confined in homes and completely at the mercy of their employers. They suffer sexual harassment and abuse on a large scale, with no mechanisms for redress. A study supported by the UN Research Institute for Social Development described how “domestic workers in Lebanon live under conditions that have been likened to slavery. The structural arrangements, including the threat of violence, restriction of movement and exploitative employment conditions, have led to significantly widespread abuse of these women, who constitute a particularly vulnerable group, comprise the bulk of foreign workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines.”
A major issue faced by women is testing HIV positive at the time of renewal of their contracts. A report titled, “HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States” released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) exposed the magnitude of the problem. This report was the result of serious concerns expressed by Pakistan at the WHO forum in 2007 regarding forced deportations of women workers from Arab countries after testing positive for HIV. It acknowledged that the women “leave for work under unsafe conditions, live in very difficult circumstances, and are often targets of sexual exploitation and violence before they depart, during their transit and stay in host countries and on return to their countries of origin”. Nothing effective has apparently been done so far to provide security from sexual abuse and violence to these women, and they continue to suffer.
To bring some hope into the lives of all those serving under difficult circumstances, strict monitoring is required at every step, starting with recruitment agencies, while regulation and monitoring by labor-sending and labor receiving countries to maintain a level of respect for the rights of the work force is essential for change. Indeed, no celebration of achievements would be complete without continued support for restoration of the dignity of labour for South Asian migrant workers.
SouthAsia, May 2010.