New ILO report

Reforming visa sponsorship systems for migrant workers can benefit destination countries in the Middle East

Reforming the current visa sponsorship arrangements that govern temporary labour migration in the Middle East would have wide-ranging benefits – from improving working conditions and better meeting the needs of employers, to boosting the economy and labour market productivity, according to a new ILO report.

Press release | 08 May 2017
© Nisreen Bathish/ILO
BEIRUT (ILO News) – A new ILO report demonstrates that reforming migrant worker visa-sponsorship schemes in the Middle East can benefit the economies of receiving countries as well as the migrant workers themselves.

Current sponsorship regimes in the Middle East have been criticized for creating an asymmetrical power relationship between employers and migrant workers – which can make workers, and especially migrant domestic workers, vulnerable to forced labour. Essential to the vulnerability of migrant workers is that their sponsor controls a number of aspects related to their internal labour market mobility – including their entry, renewal of stay, termination of employment, transfer of employment, and, in some cases, exit from the country.

Such arrangements place a high responsibility – and often a burden – on employers. To address these concerns, alternative modalities can be pursued which place the role of regulation and protection more clearly with the government.

The new report, titled Employer-Migrant Worker Relationships in the Middle East: Exploring scope for internal labour market mobility and fair migration demonstrates that reform to the current sponsorship arrangements that govern temporary labour migration in the Middle East will have wide-ranging benefits – from improving working conditions and better meeting the needs of employers, to boosting the economy and labour market productivity.

Kafala (Arabic for sponsorship) is an all-encompassing collection of laws, administrative regulations, norms and customary practices governing labour migration across the Middle East. Under kafala, a migrant worker’s immigration and legal residency status is tied to an individual sponsor (kafeel) throughout the contract period, in such a way that the migrant worker cannot typically enter the country, resign from a job, transfer employment, nor – in some cases – leave the country without first obtaining explicit permission from the employer.

Ruba Jaradat, ILO Regional Director for Arab States said: “The white paper we launch today provides a five-point framework to analyze the level of internal labour market mobility in migrant worker-employer relationships across countries in the Middle East. The framework supports governments to identify areas where migrant workers may be vulnerable to abuse of power by their sponsors and where labour market mobility may be enhanced.”

“The labour markets and economies of countries in the Middle East face a number of critical challenges,” said Hans van de Glind, ILO Senior Migration Specialist for Arab States. “This report provides a number of practical and compelling recommendations to government – partly drawn from promising practices in the region – to allow for increased labour market mobility of migrant workers in the region.”

Ruba Jaradat highlighted that "promising progress has been made in the United Arab Emirates, where a new Decree allows either party to unilaterally terminate the employment relationship; and in Bahrain and Jordan, where flexible visas for migrant workers have been introduced – delinking migrant workers from the control of one single sponsor".

Key policy reforms that governments can consider to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers may include:
  • Ensuring that workers’ permits are not tied to a specific employer;
  • enabling workers to be responsible for renewing their own work permits;
  • allowing workers to independently end their employment contract (with reasonable notice);
  • allowing workers to change employers without the consent of the current employer; and
  • permitting workers to exit the country without seeking approval from their employer.

The benefits of sponsorship reform to increase internal labour market mobility of migrants in the workforce are multiple. Specific benefits include:
  • A more flexible and dynamic labour market;
  • a higher chance for nationalization strategies to succeed;
  • improved skills matching of workers to companies;
  • fewer migrant workers in irregular situations;
  • lower overall recruitment costs and less visa trading and other fraudulent recruitment practices; and
  • a reduction in employer practices that are designed to prevent workers from leaving the employer (such as withholding of wages and passport confiscation).

Such reforms help to rebalance the power dynamic between workers and employers – making workers less vulnerable to forced labour.

Note for editors: The term ‘migrant worker’ is used throughout the white paper in accordance with international norms, in particular, Article 2 of the International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990), which defines a ‘migrant worker’ as a ”person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national”. It is important to note that governments in the Middle East view most labour migration as temporary and tend to prefer to use the term ‘temporary foreign contract labourers’ or ‘temporary expatriate workers’.