Millions of migrants who work in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries lack real legal protection, Human Rights Watch said today. In letters to the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- Human Rights Watch strongly urged their leaders to endorse the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Nearly ten million foreigners, most of them unskilled and semi-skilled migrants, work in the GCC states. Some 5.5 million are employed in Saudi Arabia, where foreigners comprise one-third of the population. In Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, non-citizens are in the majority and total about 4.4 million people.

“Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have a special responsibility to participate in all international efforts to guarantee rights and justice for this vulnerable population,” said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Becoming parties to the migrant rights convention will signal the GCC’s willingness to help address a serious worldwide problem.”

The convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1990, and will enter into force on July 1, 2003. It promotes and protects the rights of migrant workers and their families and applies not only to documented workers -- migrants who are in compliance with local law – but also to those who lack or have lost legal authorization for residency and employment, described in the treaty as persons in “irregular situations.”

“In the Gulf states, documented migrants can easily slip into illegal status through no fault of their own,” said Megally. “Unscrupulous employers and sponsors deliberately let residence permits expire, or literally sell workers to other employers, thereby invalidating their work permits. Desperate migrants also flee terrible working conditions and end up outside the law.”

The convention guarantees basic human rights to all migrants, including the rights to life, due process, fair trials, and freedom of expression and religion, as well as equal treatment with nationals in respect to economic and social rights. Its provisions also address the following key problems found in the GCC states:

Intimidation and violence
Migrants, including large numbers of women employed as domestic servants, face intimidation and violence at the hands of employers, supervisors, sponsors, and police and security forces. Intimidated by violence or the threat of it, workers are often afraid to demand unpaid wages, protest poor conditions, or seek legal recourse for abuses. Article

16(2) of the convention guarantees to migrants and their families “effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions.”

Restrictions on freedom of movement
Sponsors and employers continue to confiscate migrants’ documents, including passports and residence permits. This severely restricts freedom of movement and limits migrants’ ability to report mistreatment to authorities without risking arrest, imprisonment, and steep fines. Article 21 of the convention prohibits anyone other than a duly authorized public official from confiscating such vital documents, and requires that migrant workers receive detailed receipts when their documents are legally confiscated.

Migrants in the GCC states typically cannot obtain an exit visa to leave the country of employment without the approval of their sponsor or employer; arbitrary denials of exit visas can place migrants in situations that amount to forced labor. Article 8 of the convention reaffirms the right of migrant workers and their families to leave any state.

Trafficking and forced labor
Migrants in undocumented or “irregular” situations are among the most vulnerable. Recruiters in their home countries traffic migrants en masse, promising them jobs and salaries that never materialize. These workers have often paid recruiters significant sums to secure what they believed were legally enforceable contracts and work visas. Deeply in debt and with no other options once they arrive, they have little choice but to work for local sponsors or employers under highly exploitative conditions that effectively amount to forced labor or servitude.

The convention stipulates that migrant workers and members of their families may not be held in “servitude” or “required to perform forced or compulsory labor.” Article 68(1) calls for cooperation among States parties to prevent and eliminate such “illegal or clandestine movements and employment,” and requires states to undertake the following measures:

  • prevent the dissemination of misleading information relating to emigration and immigration;
  • detect and eradicate illegal or clandestine movements of migrant workers and members of their families;
  • impose effective sanctions on persons, groups or entities that organize, operate or assist in organizing or operating such movements;
  • impose effective sanctions on persons, groups or entities that use violence, threats or intimidation against migrant workers or members of their families in an irregular situation; and
  • impose sanctions on employers of workers in irregular situations, whenever appropriate.

Restrictions on the right to organize and join trade unions
In all the Gulf states, laws and regulations either prohibit or restrict migrants’ participation in independent trade union activities. Article 40(1) of the convention provides for the right of migrants “to form associations and trade unions in the State of employment for the promotion and protection of their economic, social, cultural and other interests.” Article 26 affirms the right to join such groups and freely participate in their meetings and other activities.