Labour Migration in the Arab States

Rose, a migrant worker from Cameroon, holds her goddaughter in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (© Leila Alaoui / ILO)
Migration to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) 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 124 billion was remitted from the Arab States region in 2017. In this way, and by helping to address the large labour shortages in destination countries, particularly in the Gulf, migration can be a ‘win-win-win’ for workers, employers as well as for both countries of origin and destination. However, cases of exploitation by recruitment agencies and employers often create considerable hardship for workers, and threaten to cause reputational damage to companies, 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 employment contracts and visas. This is known as the Kafala (sponsorship) system where kafeels (employers and/or sponsors) 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. 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 in domestic work. Workers in these sectors are also more likely to be lower-skilled and at the risk of abusive and fraudulent practices by recruitment agencies, such as contract substitution and the charging of workers the equivalent of several months’ salary for visas, air tickets and other related recruitment costs. These practices are in breach of national laws in both countries of origin and destination, as well as international  labour standards, such as the ILO Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997 (No. 181) and the ILO General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment, 2016, which contain the principle that workers or jobseekers should not be charged recruitment fees and related costs, meaning in effect that the costs of recruitment should normally be borne by employers. In 2019, the ILO Governing Body also endorsed a Definition of Recruitment Fees and Related Costs, which provides important policy guidance on how ILO’s tripartite constituents should apply this important principle.

In addition to abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices and the high costs associated with labour migration, other issues and challenges facing migrant workers in the region include:
  • Poor conditions of work and substantial occupational safety and health deficits combined with weak labour inspection in migrant-intensive sectors such as construction and domestic work;
  • Non-inclusion or only partial inclusion of certain categories of migrant workers, such as domestic workers, in labour laws – while a number of countries in the region have adopted separate laws regulating the domestic work sector, the protections afforded are often inferior to those provided in the labour law;
  • Limited access to justice, weak and inefficient dispute settlement mechanisms and absence of compensation schemes; and
  • Limited or no freedom of association in some countries 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 acheived through:
  • Regular dialogue on labour migration and mobility at the national, regional and interregional level, such as during the Interregional Consultation on Labour Migration and Mobility from Asia and Africa to the Middle East, held in Beirut in October 2017;
  • Insertion of migrant worker protection clauses in bilateral agreements and MOUs between countries of origin and destination, including model standard employment contracts that adhere to international labour standards, 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 Principles 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 in countries in the region, by addressing exploitative elements under the Kafala (sponsorship) system;
  • Fair and ethical recruitment practices, including ensuring that recruitment fees and related 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 and proportionate penalties on employers for violating migrant workers’ rights;
  • Mandating employers to cover the 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;
  • Extending social protection coverage to migrant workers;
  • Promoting the right of migrant workers to freedom of association, and capacity building of trade unions and civil society organizations for improved outreach and service delivery to migrant workers; and
  • Job creation and access to the labour market for refugees, in accordance with the ILO Guiding principles on the access of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons to the labour market, 2016.
For more information contact: Ryszard Cholewinski, Senior Migration Specialist for Arab States, (t):+961-1-752400, (e)

1 The Abu Dhabi Dialogue (ADD) is an interregional dialogue among governments in Asia and GCC countries. It was initiated by the UAE (in 2008), which is the current ADD Chair and provides the ADD Secretariat. The ADD holds annual Senior Officials’ meetings and has organized five ministerial meetings, the most recent one in Dubai in October 2019, which included participation by ILO in an observer capacity.