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Gulf Countries: Bid to Protect Migrant Workers

Construction Firms Should Adopt New Guidelines

(Beirut) – Human Rights Watch today issued a set of guidelines to protect migrant construction workers. International and domestic companies operating in Gulf Cooperation Council countries should adopt the standards to ensure that they and their contractors and sub-contractors respect the rights of migrant workers on their projects and to protect workers from serious abuses, including trafficking and forced labor.

“In the face of rampant abuse and exploitation of worker’s rights in GCC countries, construction firms need to step up to protect their workforce,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “These guidelines outline how companies can guarantee workers’ basic rights under international law and would make a huge difference in ending worker exploitation.”

In the face of rampant abuse and exploitation of worker’s rights in GCC countries, construction firms need to step up to protect their workforce. These guidelines outline how companies can guarantee workers’ basic rights under international law and would make a huge difference in ending worker exploitation.
Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East Director

The “Guide to Doing Ethical Business in the GCC” outlines specific standards that companies should address when working in the GCC states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to safeguard workers’ rights and minimize the risk of abuses in their labor supply chains. The new guidelines reflect key problems in the construction industry in GCC countries.

Human rights organizations and the media have shone a spotlight for many years on the appalling living and working conditions of low-wage migrant workers in the GCC’s construction sector. The guidelines are based on more than a decade of research by Human Rights Watch in this area. They cover issues such as recruitment fees, timely payment of wages, passport confiscation, accommodation, and health and safety. They recommend independent third-party monitoring to ensure effective implementation.

Drawn by the promise of jobs, thousands of men from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal are working on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates. © 2010 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Despite some recent positive legal reforms in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, migrant workers in GCC countries frequently experience hazardous, sometimes deadly, working conditions, long hours, unpaid wages, and cramped and unsanitary housing. With the exception of Bahrain, GCC governments ban migrant workers from forming unions to collectively bargain with their employers.

Many workers, who make up virtually all of the construction labor pool in GCC countries incur large debts to pay recruiters in their home countries to obtain their jobs. While GCC laws require employers to pay recruiting fees, the provisions are not enforced, particularly with respect to employers who do business with recruiters based outside the GCC or to reimbursement for workers who pay such fees.

Migrant workers are forced to work under the highly exploitative kafala system of sponsorship-based employment, which restricts them from changing employers without their employer’s consent. Employers confiscate workers’ passports as a nearly universal practice to maintain control over their movements. Access to legal and judicial remedies is extremely limited, and employers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted for violating labor laws. Authorities often respond to striking workers with detention and deportation.

Businesses must respect human rights under international standards, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and do not need to wait for new laws or enforcement measures to act. Many corporations in various industries, from garment manufacturing to electronics, have standards to improve the treatment of their workers.

Businesses and construction companies operating in the GCC countries should make a public commitment to uphold migrant workers’ rights and should verify that they have done so, Human Rights Watch said. The Human Rights Watch guidelines outline key areas to address, notably employment and contracting; health, safety and living conditions; and labor disputes.

Among the key recommendations to companies are:

  • To ensure that they and their contractors and sub-contractors pay all recruiting fees associated with workers on their projects, including reimbursing workers found to have paid such fees;

  • To provide workers with safe facilities to maintain possession of their passports;

  • To pay workers on time and in full;

  • To carry out requirements for maximum working hours with overtime pay;
    To provide workers with decent accommodations; and

  • To appoint independent monitors who issue public reports to ensure that workers get the benefits of labor protections, in practice, and not just on paper.

Government developers in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have come under intense scrutiny over the mistreatment of migrant workers on high-profile projects and have agreed to codes of self-regulation that contractually bind their contractors to standards that in some cases involve third-party monitoring.

“This is a big challenge for the construction sector, but it will have benefits for the welfare of hundreds of thousands of young men and their families, not to mention the companies’ own reputations,” Whitson said.

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