‘Unfree’ labourOnly a concerted global effort will destroy the extremely exploitative employment system in the Gulf
The number of migrant workers expected to die in the construction sites to establish the FIFA World Cup complex in Qatar by 2022 is 4,000. 900 workers have already lost their lives. Migrant workers represent a significant proportion of Qatar’s population. For decades Qataris have been a minority, representing only 12.1 percent of the population. The greatest represented nationalities are Indians at 25 percent, followed by Nepali at 13.5 percent. The condition of migrant workers, linked to human and workers’ rights, has become a matter of international law and action. It is imperative today to think about a review of national work legislation and regulation to come up with cohesive and comprehensive international labour standards.
When we live in a country such as Nepal, devastated by natural disasters and one of the poorest and least developed nations in the world, one cannot easily expect high quality living standards. Many Nepalis dream of leaving the country to go abroad, where earning money seems to be easier. It is true that “money can’t buy happiness”, however what is known as “the dream of going abroad” has become a reality faced by those whose only wish is to provide more for their families. The dream of a better life for themselves and their family has prompted them to leave the country in order to reach the Gulf region or Malaysia. This significant tendency towards international migration has become an integral part of our economies and societies. Migrants represent approximately 3.1 percent of the world population. In 2013 alone, the International Labour Organisation identified around 232 million international migrants, almost half of them are working migrants. Almost 14 percent of the current population of Nepal received permits issued by the government to work abroad (excluding India) during the fiscal year 1993/1994 to 2013/2014. The labour demand, particularly for unskilled labour, has been increasing in industrialised countries.
Unfortunately, the journey that has been undertaken by so many appears to mask a darker horizon.
Kafala system means “sponsorship system”, it is an Islamic jurisprudence which is used to monitor migrant labourers in the countries that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It regulates the work of migrant workers, requiring them to need a “sponsor” to work. This sponsor can be a natural or legal person (as in legal entities such as companies), and the sponsor has full control of the migrant’s situation regarding exit from the country, a change of employer, getting a driver’s license, renting a home, or opening a checking account. This specific labour legislation is among the worst in the world. They are restricted on where they can move, they are not allowed to hold on to their own passports, they are forced to have a sponsor’s permission to leave the country due to an inhumane exit visa system, and they are prohibited from forming or joining a union. What used to be the dream of a new life has been replaced by exploitive conditions, long working hours, unpaid wages, living in substandard conditions, and unsafe housing. Even though using the services of a recruitment agency has been the preferred approach among migrants, many of them have been misguided and misinformed during the employment process. The power granted to the employers by the Kafala system has resulted in the establishment of this near-feudal system.
Foreign workers represent up to 94 percent of the labour force of Qatar. After the country was named the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, international media attention increased regarding the working conditions. In other countries such as in the United Arab Emirates, the “Kafala” issue affects mostly women domestic workers. Many of them are being sexually abused. In 2009, Bahrain was the first country in the GCC to claim that they would repeal this oppressive system. Later on, the 13th of December 2016, the national authorities of Qatar announced the end of the Kafala system and introduced a new labour law which they claimed would bring “tangible benefits” to workers. However, Amnesty International has stated that these reforms have been characterised as “inadequate” and “continue to leave migrant workers at the hands of exploitative bosses”.
Multiple organisations and countries condemn the attitude of the GCC vis-à-vis such inhuman and cruel treatment.
The international and national legal instruments for human rights decrees that the origin and the host country must ensure secure work. Many international laws and conventions have been adopted since 1948 by the United Nations Organisation and the International Labour Organisation with the aim of eradicating forced labour.
Despite the clear progress, migrant workers continue to endure unbearable working and living conditions. The lack of common ground on the international stage regarding jurisdiction in different countries and the weak international legal sanctions prevents any positive change from taking place. Surprisingly, international laws and conventions are only recommendations or guidelines and their application is not mandatory. Today, the many challenges associated with labour migration require the concerted action of both origin and destination countries, as well as international coordination between international organisations and governments.
Antier is an intern at the Center for Migration and International Relations (CMIR) in Kathmandu