Migrant workers play a key role in the labour markets of GCC countries, where they make up the vast proportion of private sector employment. The ILO estimated that Arab States hosted 24.1 million migrant workers in 2019. Most migrant workers in the GCC countries are from Asia, with sizeable numbers from other Arab countries, and increasingly from East Africa.
Labour migration has proven to be beneficial to both countries of origin and destination, as it provides jobs and employment opportunities for millions of workers and contributes to economic growth in destination and origin countries. Nevertheless, migrant workers in the Gulf countries face important gaps in relation to labour protection, as well as fundamental rights at work. This is coupled with limited access to social protection.
Social protection provisions for migrant workers in the Gulf countries are characterized by important gaps, shaped by the legacy of the sponsorship system, the short-term migration paradigm, and the duality of provisions between national and migrant workers. Migrant workers tend to be principally covered through employer-liability mechanisms. Long-term benefits covering risks of old-age, disability and unemployment are almost entirely unaddressed, as well as the rights of family members. Domestic workers, migrant workers in an irregular situation and those working in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable and lack access to basic forms of social protection.
Why extend social protection to migrant workers in the GCC?Development gains from labour migration and the protection of the rights of migrant workers are inseparable. Migrant workers contribute significantly to promoting development and reducing poverty in their countries of origin as well as to supporting the economic activity of the destination countries. Nonetheless, the development benefits of labour migration should not be at the expense of the protection of migrant workers.
The pandemic has amplified the importance of extending social protection to migrant workers, given the benefits to individuals and their families, communities, and societies, as well as to economic growth, sustainable development, and social cohesion. There is now widespread acceptance that comprehensive social protection systems serve as social and economic stabilizers and can support recovery and build resilience in case of future crises.
A standards-driven approachSocial security is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and is at the heart of the ILO’s mandate to promote “the extension of social security measures to provide basic income to all in need of such protection and comprehensive medical care”. To fulfil this mandate, the ILO has developed a comprehensive body of standards aimed at guaranteeing the social security rights of all workers, including migrant workers, based on the overarching principle of equality of treatment and non-discrimination.
International labour standards provide guidance on how to extend social protection to migrant workers and establish core social security principles:
• Equality of treatment between national and non-nationals whereby migrants have the same social security rights and obligations as nationals in the destination country;
• Determination of the applicable legislation to ensure that the social security of a migrant worker is governed at any time by the legislation of one country only;
• Maintenance of acquired rights and payment of benefits abroad whereby any acquired right should be guaranteed to the migrant worker in one territory even if it has been acquired in another;
• Maintenance of rights in the course of acquisition whereby the completion of a benefit-related qualifying period should account for periods served in each country;
• Mutual administrative assistance ensures the coordination and the data and information exchange required for the implementation of social security agreements.
Read more on ILO social security standards for migrant workers here:
- ILO. 2021. “Extending social protection to migrant workers, refugees, and their families: Guide for policymakers and practitioners”.
- ILO. 2022. “Securing social protection for migrant workers and their families: Challenges and options for building a better future”, GB.344/POL/1.
New momentum for reforms in the GCCWhile the extension of social protection to migrant workers was already a rising issue on the agenda in the GCC region, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted its urgency. The limited effectiveness of social protection systems was acutely felt during the pandemic, leaving many migrant workers highly exposed. Employers have also faced the financial consequences of social protection approaches that are not based on collective financing.
As countries in the region have once more realized the social and economic cost of uneven social protection systems, new avenues are emerging across the GCC region to extend social protection to migrant workers both in legislation and in practice.
New developments include:
• Ongoing reforms of social health protection mechanisms for migrant workers.
• Expansion of short-term social insurance benefits to private sector workers, including migrant workers under national systems, for example in relation to employment injury insurance, unemployment, sickness and maternity.
• Efforts to ensure better compliance with end-of-service benefits systems, including through the establishment of national funds.
Stronger dialogue between countries of origin and destinations, a deeper assessment of workers and employers’ preferences for reforms, and the full consideration of barriers for effective enjoyment of social protection benefits are key elements to advance the agenda.
A new emerging evidence baseThe ILO has supported the development of new evidence-based research on the extension of social protection to migrant workers in the GCC:
- Flagship Report – ILO. 2023. Social protection for migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries: A regional mapping of provisions on paper and in practice. This report explores the de jure (according to the law) and the de facto (actual) access of migrant workers to nine areas of social protection across the GCC countries, and the factors that have facilitated or hindered the extension of such coverage. The report is the first of its kind to assess this topic in a structured and systematic manner, and includes a review of the relevant literature in both English and Arabic, a review of applicable legislation and regulations by country, and an analysis of 51 key informant interviews.
- Report – ILO. 2023 Access to social protection for Nepalese migrant workers in countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).This study explores the access to social protection for Nepalese migrant workers in countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). It is the first of its kind to analyse data collected from migrant workers in all the GCC countries on their de facto access to social protection for health coverage, sickness, maternity, unemployment, employment injury as well as access to EOSI. The study focuses on Nepalese returnees from the GCC as Nepal is one of the largest suppliers of labour globally that also have a number of provisions in place to cover migrant workers abroad, allowing for an analysis of social protection provisions in both countries of origin and destination.
- Policy Paper- ILO. 2023. Reforming end-of-service indemnity for migrant workers in Member States of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). "Policy options for the progressive realization of international social security standards". The policy paper analyses end-of-service indemnity (EOSI) schemes in the GCC countries and proposes policy reform solutions in line with core principles enshrined in international social security standards. It aims at informing dialogue around the limitations of current EOSI schemes, and involving workers, employers and governments in the GCC in the identification of appropriate policy options for reforms at national and regional level.
- Research Paper – ILO. 2023. Extending social protection to migrant workers in the Arab region. An analysis of existing barriers and good practices in light of international social security standards. This research paper aims to examine barriers to the social security of migrant workers in the Arab region, identify current practices and chart possible avenue for progressive reform. It reflects on the importance of extending social protection to migrant workers from the vantage point of international labour and social security standards. The paper also presents a typology of drivers of exclusion that prevents social security access across the Arab region. Based on available best practices from the region, the paper proposes key elements for a progressive reform agenda to advance the universal right to social protection to migrant workers in the region.
- Legal Report – ILO. 2023. Review of national social protection legislation and legal frameworks for migrant workers in the Gulf countries. This report analyses the legal (de jure) coverage of social protection for migrant workers among the six Member States of the GCC. Developed in collaboration with ODI and Clyde and co.
- Research Paper – Social protection for Nepalese migrant workers in the GCC, in collaboration with ODI.
- Research Paper – Employers’ perspectives on social protection for migrant workers in Kuwait, in collaboration with ODI.
Activities and News
- Past event: Social protection in the Gulf countries: what rights can migrant workers access?
- Past event: Extending social protection to migrant workers in Gulf countries: State of play and next steps for reform, hosted by ODI
- The ILO participated in a series of two workshops organized by the GCC Executive Bureau for Labour Ministries pertaining to reforms of end-of-service indemnities in the region
- Governments, workers and employers representatives explored regional perspectives on extending social protection to migrant workers in the Middle East and Northern Africa, at the ILO side event at the 49th Arab Labour Conference in Cairo
- Ground-breaking reforms in Oman pave the way for a new social protection model in Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Project summary and componentsThe overall objective of the project is to promote the extension of social protection for migrants in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in accordance with international social security standards, by promoting research, informing social dialogue and supporting reform efforts.
The project operates along three main axes:
- regional and national assessments of social protection provisions for migrant workers in the GCC countries;
- country level analysis of barriers to access to social protection for migrant workers and policy dialogue on opportunities for reform, including countries of origin and destination;
- technical assistance and support to reform efforts at country level.
The project is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
Contacts: Lea Bou Khater: email@example.com; Luca Pellerano: firstname.lastname@example.org; Ryszard Cholewinski: email@example.com