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H.E. Ahmed Saleem

Secretary General

SAARC Secretariat

PO Box 4222 Tridevi Marg

Kathmandu, Nepal

Fax: +977 1 4227033, 4223991


Dear Mr. Saleem,

We are writing to you in advance of International Migrants Day, December 18, to draw your attention to the abuse and exploitation of workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait.

Human Rights Watch is an independent organization dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights in more than 90 countries. For 30 years, we have worked to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

We have been campaigning for the last decade for better protections for migrant workers in the Middle East. We have conducted in-depth investigations on exploitation of migrant workers, published numerous reports, and called upon labor-receiving countries to enforce policies that end labor and human rights abuses.

We have also worked with labor-sending countries to ensure better protections for their nationals when they seek employment abroad. While some countries individually have made efforts to protect their nationals, Human Rights Watch would like to call upon the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to launch a regional protection initiative, so that member states can join forces to leverage their collective bargaining power and seek greater protections for their citizens in line with international labor and human rights standards.

Migrant labor contributes significantly to economic growth and development in each country. In Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, remittances from migrants are larger than the national foreign exchange reserves. Remittances formed 25 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012; in India, remittances are larger than the earnings from information technology (IT) exports. The World Bank estimates South Asian countries will receive US$114 billion in remittances in 2013; 48 percent of this will come from GCC countries.

Abuses against Migrant Workers

Despite their valuable contributions, major gaps in protections leave migrant workers at risk of serious abuses without redress and in the worst cases can lead to forced labor and trafficking.

In labor-sending countries, recruiters often deceive workers over the terms of their future employment and charge them exorbitant recruitment fees. Recruitment costs can be as high as $1200 for a Nepalese worker, amounting to six months of wages in the Gulf, while a Bangladeshi migrant may have to pay as much as $2900 in recruitment costs, amounting to 14 months of future wages.

In labor-receiving countries in the Gulf, workers typically have their passports confiscated and are forced to work under the highly exploitative kafala system of sponsorship-based employment, which prevents them from leaving employers. Migrants often have limited information about their rights and channels to seek help, and face discrimination and obstacles to redress. They do not enjoy the protection of trade unions. Employers are rarely, if ever prosecuted, for violations of labor law. As a result migrant workers frequently experience hazardous working conditions, long hours, unpaid wages, and cramped and unsanitary housing.

Recent international attention has been on Qatar, where mostly South Asian low-wage migrant construction workers build under appalling conditions the infrastructure for the 2022 Football World Cup games, risking their lives. A June 2012 report by Human Rights Watch documented pervasive employer exploitation and abuse of workers in Qatar’s construction industry. Human Rights Watch has documented almost identical systems and similar problems in reports on Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Investigations by the Guardian newspaper in London in September 2013 revealed that 44 Nepalese workers died between June and August this year, about half of them from heart failure or workplace accidents. This corresponds with Human Rights Watch findings published in June 2012, which found that 191 Nepalese workers died in 2010. The Indian embassy in Qatar recorded 212 deaths in 2013 and around 700 deaths between 2010 and 2012.

The situation is particularly dire for the millions of Asian migrant domestic workers, almost exclusively women, employed in the region as live-in nannies, cleaners, and caretakers for the elderly. Isolated in private homes, often prohibited from leaving the workplace, and excluded from key protections in national labor laws, they are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse, and they are sometimes subjected to conditions of slavery. These abuses have also led some countries such as Nepal to adopt well-intentioned yet discriminatory measures, such as banning women under the age of 30 from working in Gulf countries—which can push them into irregular migration channels with heightened risk of exploitation and trafficking.

The six GCC countries are considering a mandatory standard contract for domestic workers. It would include provisions for a weekly day of rest and paid annual and sick leave, and give workers the right to keep their own passports. However, the proposed contract falls short of even the minimal protections provided to other workers under the labor laws of these countries, which, for example, limit the hours of work and are linked to national enforcement mechanisms.

In January, Saudi Arabia executed Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan woman, after convicting her of the death of her employer’s 4-month-old baby. Nafeek was 17 when the child died under her care and the Saudi authorities executed her in violation of the kingdom’s international obligations and despite widespread condemnation by other governments and rights groups. There were also concerns that Nafeek did not receive legal assistance or competent translation upon her arrest and during her trial. Nafeek’s case highlighted the plight of domestic workers in GCC countries but also the numerous barriers migrants face in seeking redress from the justice system or fair treatment when in conflict with the law.

Regional Reform Efforts

While Asian and Middle Eastern governments have introduced incremental reforms for migrant labor practices, so far they have proved inadequate to sufficiently address ongoing abuse. In 2003, Asian countries set up the Colombo Process, a regional consultative process to address the needs of contractual migrant workers employed overseas. Participating labor-sending countries met in Dhaka in 2011 and declared the need to promote the rights, welfare, and dignity of migrant workers, including promoting transparency and openness in recruitment processes and strengthening monitoring and supervision of recruitment practices.

In 2008, the United Arab Emirates hosted the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, supported by the International Organization on Migration, to facilitate an inter-regional consultation between labor-sending countries and labor-receiving countries on contractual migrant workers. In 2012, participating governments, including South Asian countries and all six GCC countries, adopted a Framework of Regional Collaboration committing to prevent abuse and foster greater benefits from migration. These include reducing recruitment costs, developing standard employment contracts, and making recruiting agencies responsible for the activities of local-level labor brokers. It also recommends pre-departure and post-arrival information seminars for migrant workers and government action to enforce labor laws.

Abuses against migrants are often linked to gaps in information, poor coordination, and competition for jobs, so it's a step in the right direction for governments to sit around the table and address these problems together. But these processes have been slow and non-binding, resulting in little change on the ground. 

Some countries have attempted to improve oversight of labor migration through bilateral agreements, but uneven bargaining power between sending and receiving countries has meant that the resulting agreements are often weak.

We believe SAARC can provide a solution.

SAARC has expressed its commitment to promoting the welfare of the people of South Asia and strengthening cooperation among member states in international forums on matters of common interest. International labor migration is an area of tremendous relevance and shared concern for SAARC members and one in which critical protection gaps could best be addressed through a regional approach.

Human Rights Watch urges SAARC to:

  • Foster regular and increased cooperation and dialogue among member states on international labor migration, including through establishing an agreement to develop a common set of minimum standards, monitor practices, and seek reforms with labor-receiving countries collectively; and  
  • Adopt reforms at home and push for reforms in GCC countries based on international human rights standards and best practices, particularly the ILO Multilateral Framework for Labor Migration and the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity.

Key elements of SAARC migrant worker reforms should include:

  • Respect for the rights of migrants to join or form trade unions in line with ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, and respect for migrants’ rights to collective bargaining as set out in ILO Convention No. 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining;
  • Improved regulation and monitoring of recruitment agencies, including, consistent with ILO Convention No. 181 on Private Employment Agencies, the elimination of recruitment fees charged to migrant workers, requirements for agencies to conduct due diligence to screen the recruiters with whom they partner, and increased state capacity for investigations, inspections, and enforcement;
  • Ratification and implementation of international labor treaties with key protections for migrant workers, including ILO Convention No. 97 on Migration for Employment, ILO Convention No. 143 on Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions), and ILO Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers; and
  • Regular and increased dialogue and cooperation on labor migration policy and enforcement among labor-sending and receiving countries, in consultation with social partners, civil society, and migrant worker organizations.

SAARC member states should improve protections for its nationals abroad by collectively urging GCC countries to:

  • End the exclusion of domestic workers and other classes of migrant workers from key protections in their national labor laws, and ensure that contracts, recruitment practices, and other conditions comply with standards in ILO Convention No. 189;
  • Enforce the principles of non-discrimination and equal treatment of migrant workers;
  • Reform of the kafala sponsorship system by allowing workers to change jobs or return to their country without requiring employer consent, regardless of how long they have worked for that employer, and repeal employers’ power to cancel workers’ visas.
  • Ensure safe and decent working and living conditions, such as regular payment of wages and no confiscation of passports, including by significantly increasing the number and training of labor inspectors, and imposing deterrent sanctions on violators.
  • Improve and facilitate migrant workers’ access to judicial remedies and credible grievance mechanisms without fear of recrimination or dismissal, and by making competent translation and legal assistance available.
  • Enforce national anti-trafficking laws to ensure prosecution of employers and recruitment agents involved in the forced labor of migrant workers.

We remain, as always, available to share our views and knowledge or to provide any additional information that can help to address the need for urgent reforms required to protect contractual migrant workers.

Thank you for your consideration.



Brad Adams

Asia director

Human Rights Watch



Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, Bangladesh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India

President Ram Baran Yadav, Nepal

Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka

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