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© 2016 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – The United Kingdom should not finalize a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries until the agreement includes concrete labor and other rights improvements, particularly for migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said today. The UK and GCC countries should incorporate strong human rights conditions in any future agreement and not conclude the deal until there is detailed public transparency around the rights protections in it.

A third round of negotiations for an agreement between the UK and the GCC, a political and economic coordination body made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), took place in Riyadh in March 2023. A fourth round is expected later this year. The UK has released very little information on the timeline and substance of the talks, and has not publicly pledged to include detailed rights protections for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have dismal rights records, particularly in regard to migrant workers. The UK has itself failed to protect migrant workers’ rights in the UK. Failure to ensure concrete improvements on human rights, particularly labor rights, before an FTA is signed could lead to UK complicity in rights abuses in the GCC countries and beyond.

“The United Kingdom’s trade negotiations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the rest of the GCC have proceeded with little sign of commitments to human rights protections,” said Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UK is already curbing workers’ rights at home and risks further contributing to pervasive abuses against migrant workers that are entrenched within the state economies of GCC countries.”

Providing incentives for increased trade with Gulf countries without first ensuring significant human rights improvements and benchmarks in any agreement may seriously undermine rights in the Gulf and the ability of the UK to fulfil its commitments, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented systematic human rights violations against migrant workers in all six GCC countries. Under the kafala (sponsorship) system throughout the region, migrant workers’ visas are tied to their employers, leaving workers vulnerable to wage abuse, employer exploitation, and situations that amount to forced labor.

The kafala system leaves workers dependent for their legal residency and status in the country on their employers, who often take advantage of their extensive control. While some Gulf countries have carried out reforms, they have been weak, not implemented well or do not go far enough to dismantle the system for all workers. Throughout the Gulf countries, migrant workers are also prohibited or are limited from exercising their full rights to free association and collective bargaining, leaving them unable to promote or defend basic labor rights. Research indicates that the kafala system in the GCC was largely a British creation during the early 20th century protectorate period.

Systemic labor violations are effectively state policy in the Gulf countries are deeply entrenched within the economies of the region. The increased trade promised by an FTA could facilitate the abuses even further. These abuses were discussed at length in December 2022 at the UK parliament’s International Trade Committee’s inquiry.

Before an agreement is signed, the UK government should ensure that the agreement requires all parties to address these abuses and make improvements, with concrete benchmarks, particularly for labor rights, freedom of association, and other rights that relate to the ability of workers to advocate for improvements to their conditions.

Some of the UK’s own immigration rules have also contributed to situations amounting to forced labor. The UK’s overseas domestic worker visa, introduced in 2012, tied migrant domestic workers’ visas to their employer visiting the UK. Human Rights Watch and others found that this has led to abuse of migrant domestic workers, including forced labor. Many domestic workers brought under these visas are coming with visiting employers from Gulf countries.

Changes made since have not gone far enough to protect workers from forced labor, Human Rights Watch said. The UK’s seasonal worker visa has also reportedly contributed to forced labor. The UK government’s proposed legislation undermining the right to seek asylum, strike, and protest would also violate its international obligations.

Gulf countries should dismantle the kafala system in its entirety, ensure labor enforcement standards, and amend labor law to guarantee workers’ rights to freely associate, collectively bargain, and strike. The countries should introduce safeguards to protect migrant workers against heat stress, and a non-discriminatory minimum wage for migrant workers, including domestic workers, that allows for a decent standard of living. GCC states should also demand that the UK meet its own obligations to protect labor rights.

The UK has a record of facilitating rights abuses by Gulf countries. The UK has sold an estimated GBP£23 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch has documented that the Saudi and UAE-led coalition has carried out scores of unlawful airstrikes that killed thousands of civilians during the Yemen conflict, including using UK-made weapons.

The UK has released just two documents on the free trade negotiations: a report on the UK's strategic approach and a technical annex. There is no publicly available timeline for the talks. The report on the UK’s strategic approach avoids a clear commitment to human rights, despite UK government promises that “more trade will not come at the expense of human rights.” The report also suggests that an FTA would be worth just an estimated increase in the UK GDP of between 0.06 and 0.11 percent in 2035.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center, a nongovernmental group, recently laid out four key human rights tests for UK trade agreements, saying that they should contain enforceable human rights conditions; be subject to an independent human right and environmental risk assessment; contain enforceable human rights obligations for businesses and investors; and should not include investor-state dispute settlements.

All parties to an FTA should ratify and meaningfully implement core UN human rights and International Labor Organization (ILO) fundamental conventions. Only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UK have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Oman acceded to the ICESCR in 2020. But implementation and compliance is lacking even in those countries. The UK has repeatedly refused to implement the ICESCR in its domestic law, or to give victims of violations of these rights an effective remedy.

None of the six GCC members nor the UK have ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Only Kuwait and the UK have ratified the ILO’s conventions on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining.

The UK government should also ratify the Migrant Workers Convention. The UK should ensure full incorporation of and greater respect for the rights contained in the ICESCR in domestic law, including ensuring an effective remedy for those whose rights have been violated, and rectify areas in which its own commitment to human rights standards has wavered or weakened at home in recent years.

There should be an independent human rights and environmental impact assessment before an agreement is signed, Human Rights Watch said. It should consider how an agreement would affect people in both the Gulf countries and the UK, particularly those marginalized such as women, migrant workers, LGBT people and children, and the ability of both the UK and the Gulf countries to fulfill their human rights obligations. Relevant stakeholders should be consulted during the assessment, particularly marginalized people and groups.

A future agreement should also contain enforceable human rights obligations on businesses and investors.

Trade and sustainable development chapters are not sufficient to protect rights, Human Rights Watch said. These chapters create “Domestic Advisory Groups”, a specially created consultative body often consisting of domestic civil society organizations and local human rights experts, to monitor human rights compliance with the agreement, document violations, and press the government to address abuses.

But relying solely on domestic groups would be ineffective, given the severe repression across the region, and the history of reprisals against domestic groups and individuals who speak out. Any agreement should include provisions for transparent, independent monitoring and enforcement of human rights provisions.

The UK should ensure that any investor-state dispute settlements, which grant investors the right to sue states, that could negatively affect human rights are excluded from any agreement.

Human Rights Watch has consistently documented the unrelenting repression of human rights in Gulf countries. Severe repression, restrictive laws and policies seriously undermine women’s rights and facilitate violence against women; and lead to abusive practices in detention centers, including torture and mistreatment, prolonged arbitrary detention, and asset confiscation without any clear legal process. Such repression continues to expand and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition continues to carry out attacks in Yemen in apparent violation of the laws of war.

“The UK government’s zeal to sign as many bilateral trade agreements as possible after Brexit should not be at the expense of human rights and lead to further human rights abuses,” Shea said. “The UK government should demonstrate via its negotiations with the GCC that human rights are not just words, but fundamental values that should shape UK trade policy.”

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