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(New York) – The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should leverage their countries’ collective bargaining power to seek greater protection for their nationals working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the SAARC secretary general. December 18, 2013 is International Migrants’ Day.

A SAARC regional protection initiative could significantly enhance the living and working conditions of workers in low-paid sectors from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, who routinely face violations of international labor standards and human rights law in the six Gulf states, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Gulf countries should recognize the crucial role foreign workers play in their economies and take measures to ensure that their rights are fully respected,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “South Asian governments should join forces to press for reforms to end the terrible abuses against migrant workers that have gone on for far too long.”

The deaths of hundreds of South Asian workers in Qatar have shone a spotlight on the appalling living and working conditions of low-wage migrant workers in the construction sector, Human Rights Watch said. However, abuses in many sectors persist in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Migrant workers in these countries 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. Employers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted for violations of labor law. As a result, migrant workers in the Gulf frequently experience hazardous working conditions, long hours, unpaid wages, and cramped and unsanitary housing.

The situation is particularly dire for the millions of migrant domestic workers, almost exclusively women, isolated in private homes, Human Rights Watch said. 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.

SAARC should urge GCC countries to respect non-discrimination and equal treatment of migrant workers and their right to join trade unions and bargain collectively, Human Rights Watch said. The Gulf countries should reform the kafala sponsorship system by allowing workers to change jobs or return to their country without employer consent. They should also ensure safe and decent working and living conditions, including regular payment of wages and no confiscation of passports, and enforce these by increasing the number of trained labor inspectors and imposing sanctions on violators.

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