Labour Migration in the Arab States


Workers on a construction Site in Qatar lay wooden planks (© ILO)
Migration to Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates), and, to a lesser extent Jordan and Lebanon has provided countless jobs and generated billions of dollars in remittances for migrant workers and their families. Around USD 109 billion was remitted from the Arab States region in 2014. In this way, and by helping to solve the large labour shortages in countries particularly in the Gulf, migration can be a win-win for workers, employers and both countries of origin as well as countries of destination. However, cases of exploitation by recruitment agents and employers often create considerable hardship for workers, and threaten to cause reputational damage to employers and countries of destination.

The admission and employment system implemented by most countries in the Arab states region is based on relatively liberal entry, restricted rights and limited duration of contracts and visas. This is known as the Kafala sponsorship system where kafeels (employers) often have both liability for the conduct and safety of the migrant they bring into the country, as well as control over that migrant’s movement and employment. This generally restricts the worker’s ability to change employers or leave the country without the employer’s permission. While in some cases, employers may welcome the responsibilities of the kafala system and treat the worker well, the inherent imbalance in the rights and responsibilities of each party can create a situation which is exploitative of the worker. The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR), which is responsible for evaluating the state of application of international labour standards, has noted that the kafala system may be conducive to the exaction of forced labour and has requested that the governments concerned protect migrant workers from abusive practices.

While migrant workers in the Arab states are employed in a variety of sectors, including the oil and gas industry, agriculture, transportation and hospitality, by far the largest number of migrant workers are found in construction, and also in domestic work. These types of workers are also more likely to be lower-skilled and at the risk of exploitation by recruitment agencies which may charge the equivalent of several months’ salary for visas, air tickets and other recruitment costs, in breach of international norms and standards which note that recruitment costs should be borne by employers.

Other issues and challenges facing migrant workers in the region include:
  • Poor conditions of work and substantial occupational safety and health issues combined with weak or absent labour inspection in migrant intensive sectors such as construction and domestic work;
  • widespread discrimination including different minimum wages for migrants from different countries; and discrimination against domestic workers by not including them as ‘workers’ within the mandate of labour laws;
  • limited access to justice, weak and inefficient dispute settlement mechanisms and absence of compensation schemes resulting in situations where unscrupulous employers can operate with impunity; and
  • limited or no freedom of association and inability of migrant workers to bargain collectively.

The ILO response in the Arab States

The Fair Migration Agenda articulated by the ILO’s Director General is recognized by the Arab States in the Kuwait Declaration of the 3rd Ministerial meeting of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue.1 In implementing this agenda, the ILO works with its constituents to manage labour migration and address decent work deficits of migrant workers.

This is done by promoting:
  • Regular dialogue, such as during the interregional expert meeting on fair migration;
  • migrant worker protection clauses in bilateral agreements and MOUs between countries of origin and destination, including standard contracts that adhere to international labour standards (ILS), and that do not allow for discrimination in treatment among similar skilled migrant workers of different nationality;
  • adherence of legislative and regulatory frameworks to ILO’s Fundamental Principals and Rights at Work, ratification of all migration-related and migration-relevant conventions; and by ensuring that labour law protection for migrant workers is comprehensive, and includes (migrant) domestic workers;
  • improved labour migration governance, by addressing exploitative elements under the kafala sponsorship system;
  • fair and ethical recruitment practices including ensuring that recruitment fees and costs are covered by employers rather than migrant workers;
  • strengthening of labour inspection and monitoring systems, in particular in migrant intensive sectors such as construction and domestic work;
  • improving access to justice for migrant workers, including efficient and effective dispute resolution accompanied by compensation mechanisms, and by imposing meaningful penalties on employers for violating migrant workers’ rights;
  • mandating employers to cover costs of medical insurance of migrant workers, and to allow and offer migrant workers access to culturally appropriate medical care when necessary, including non-mandatory HIV testing and sexual and reproductive health care;
  • freedom of association of migrant workers, and capacity building of trade unions and civil society organisations for improved outreach and service delivery to migrant workers; and
  • job creation and the right to work for forced migrants/refugees.
For more information contact: Hans van de Glind, Senior Migration Specialist for Arab States, (t):+961-1-752400, (e):vandeglind@ilo.org

1 The Abu Dhabi Dialogue is an interregional dialogue among governments in Asia and GCC countries. It was initiated by the UAE (in 2008) and is coordinated by a troika composed of UAE, Kuwait and the Philippines. It holds annual senior officials meetings and has organized three ministerial meetings, the most recent one in November 2014, which included participation by ILO.