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Modern Day Slavery: Rights Groups Push for Migrant Labor Reform in Middle East

Modern Day Slavery: Rights Groups Push for Migrant Labor Reform in Middle East

Protests erupt in Lebanon amid growing call for end to controversial sponsorship system that leads to forced labor

Human rights groups are pushing governments in several Middle East countries to reform a controversial sponsorship system they say leads to serious abuses and forced labor.

The kafala system, used in many Arab countries, monitors foreign laborers and requires them to have an in-country sponsor who is responsible for their legal status. It first emerged in West Asia in the 1950s as part of broader efforts to regulate employer-migrant relations and has since been adopted as a routine practice by the six countries that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – as well as Jordan and Lebanon. Under kafala, a worker is not allowed to leave their host country or change their jobs without first obtaining permission from their employer.

According to human rights groups, this gives a disproportionate amount of power to employers and lays the groundwork for abuses to occur.

“These [abuses] typically involve long working hours with little or no rest, delayed or unpaid wages, limits to freedom of movement, poor food and living conditions, and at times physical and sexual violence,” Nisha Varia, an advocacy director at Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Women’s Rights Division, told The Media Line. “Recruitment-related abuses, the draconian kafala system, and gaps in labor laws have meant there are formidable barriers.”

HRW has been documenting abuses against migrant domestic workers in the region for the past 15 years. Varia said that the ffort has paid dividends, as several Middle East nations are beginning to legislate change, including imposing standard employment contracts, mandating rest days and setting up complaints mechanisms.

“However, migrant domestic workers in the Middle East continue to be exposed to a range of abuses due to gaps in both laws and enforcement,” she said. “In particular, there has been little movement on the kafala system.”

The majority of migrant workers to the Middle East originate from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Many leave their countries of origin to earn enough money to support their families back home. Data released by the World Bank last month revealed that remittances from migrant workers around the world to low- and middle-income countries reached $529 billion in 2018, marking a 9.6 percent increase over the previous year. The top remittance recipients were India ($79 billion), China ($67 billion), Mexico ($36 billion) and the Philippines ($34 billion).

The GCC states in particular accommodate large migrant populations, with the vast majority employed in the domestic and construction sectors. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers make up 33 percent of the kingdom’s population. As of 2010, 89% of the UAE’s total population comprised of foreign nationals, and in Bahrain 51% of residents were from abroad as of 2015.

Lebanon also hosts more than 250,000 such workers, mainly from the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. According to a recent report released by Amnesty International, the majority of these workers are women who suffer from exploitation.

“It is outrageous that successive Lebanese governments have turned a blind eye to the catalogue of abuses that migrant domestic workers are being subjected to in their place of employment,” Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, said in a recent statement. “Under kafala, these private homes have turned in many instances into little more than prisons for workers who are often treated with breathtaking contempt or outright cruelty.”

On May 5, hundreds of foreign workers staged a protest in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, demanding that the government scrap the sponsorship system entirely.

Zeina Mezher, a Lebanon-based migrant specialist and coordinator at the International Labor Organization (ILO) said the protests were part of an ongoing push to reform migrant workers’ conditions. The ILO is a United Nations agency working to advance international labor standards and protect workers’ rights.

“[Several groups] organized this in order to demand the abolishment of the sponsorship system and it’s been picking up momentum,” Mezher told The Media Line. “The problem is that the employers have the upper hand in the relationship.

“Employers [often] do not allow a worker to change employers or resign,” she continued. “Another form of abuse is the confiscation of passports [which] employers keep and often don’t even provide a copy to the worker. One of the most prominent abuses is [also the] delay or non-payment of wages.”

Nevertheless, Mezher emphasized that in many Arab states there is a serious push to improve the status quo. The newly inducted Lebanese government has also enlisted the ILO’s help in drafting recommendations to reform migrant labor laws.

“The [authorities] see it as a serious issue and are requesting the ILO’s assistance, and other NGOs, to come up with an [alternative],” she said. “It remains to be seen to what extent we will manage to convince the government to abolish the system altogether.”

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