This article is from Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights in the Gulf (GCHR), an independent non-profit organization that promotes freedom of expression and the right of peaceful association and assembly in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Migrant workers in the Persian Gulf area and neighboring countries are victims of fierce campaigns full of hate and racist speeches calling for their deportation. They have been abandoned in the face of the pandemic by the new coronavirus (COVID-19), without access to medical care or unions, according to an investigation by the Center for Human Rights in the Gulf (GCHR)
Over the years, migrant workers in Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have suffered systematic human rights violations through the infamous kafala (patronage) system that strips them of their civil rights and most basic humans. They lack the right to move, travel or change jobs, the right to health, to organize and to form organizations. Furthermore, migrant workers are denied the right to citizenship, even if they spend their entire lives working in those countries.
The kafala system, which enshrines discrimination and exploitation, contradicts the principles of human rights and modern work systems, which enjoy the guarantees contained in the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and their Families, signed in 1990 This convention entered into force on July 1, 2003, after being ratified by 20 countries, but the Gulf states and Lebanon have not yet signed it.
With the collapse of the Lebanese pound and the tension of COVID-19, migrant workers, especially domestic workers, face harsh conditions. Lebanese labor law does not protect domestic workers – usually women – because they are subject to a sponsorship system that links their legal status to the contractual relationship with their employers. At the end of the contract, workers lose their legality and risk being detained and deported. Furthermore, they can only change jobs with the consent of their employer, exposing them to exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking.
The number of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon reaches 250,000, the majority of whom are women, who have immigrated from different countries, especially Ethiopia. On June 5, Ethiopian domestic workers gathered in front of their country's consulate in Beirut, hoping to return home. Some had quit their jobs after collecting their wages in Lebanese pounds, insufficient to meet their daily needs and send money to their families. Others quit their jobs because they had not been paid in recent months. Their situation has become illegal and they need a quick solution from the authorities.
According to this BBC report, the Lebanon crisis has cast a shadow on all migrant workers. In 2012, the civil society organization Stop Violence and Exploitation They published a study on the sponsorship system, and called for an end to the exploitation of migrant workers and an alternative system that provides legal protection and freedom to choose their job.
On May 28, blogger Reem al-Shammari posted a video on Snapchat in which she verbally attacked Egyptians working in Kuwait:
Kuwait is for Kuwaitis, not for Egyptians. … You are hired. Understand… Egyptians are not partners with Kuwaitis in the homeland.
Kuwait is for Kuwaitis, not Egyptians (…) Egyptians are not the same as Kuwaitis in their homeland.
The video met with opposition from many Kuwaiti citizens, but hate speech remains a rising phenomenon on social media, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Part of this hate speech links migrant workers without foundation to the spread of the virus. However, some moderate voices defend migrant workers and their achievements as a result of their hard work.
Because of COVID-19, the sharp drop in oil prices has forced the countries of the Persian Gulf to review the policies that regulate migrant labor: many companies have dismissed hundreds of workers and deported to those who work illegally.
On June 3, in an interview, the Kuwaiti Prime Minister, Sheikh Sabah Khalid al Hamad al Sabah, noted that 70% of the country's 4.8 million inhabitants are foreigners, noting that this number should be gradually reduced to half. The Prime Minister concluded that “we have the future challenge of dealing with demographic imbalances.”
In May 2020, in a episode of We Are All Responsible (“We are all responsible”), broadcast on the official Saudi television channel, the presenter, Khaled al-Aqili, said:
Unfortunately, the control of expatriate workers over the economy has become a real threat to national security and not only on the economic side but beyond much of that.
Unfortunately, the control of expatriate workers over the economy has become a real threat to national security, and not only in the economic field, but much more than that.
And he concluded:
We must stop making the Saudi employee a scapegoat with every crisis, and make the expatriate workers, who replaced Saudi workers – who are more efficient than them, the first to be dispensed of, not the sons of the homeland.
We must stop turning Saudi workers into scapegoats for every crisis, and make expatriate workers, who have replaced the Saudis – more efficient than foreigners – the first to be fired, not the children of the homeland.
This was preceded by the ministerial decision of May 3, which regulates employment contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promoting a speech that directly addresses foreign workers and portrays them as a national threat definitely raises racist and hostile feelings. Justifying this feeling only adds fuel to the fire.
United Arab Emirates
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, several press reports have confirmed the prevalence of the disease among migrant workers, due to the lack of protection and social distancing. Most migrant workers live in highly populated common areas and in high-density commercial neighborhoods.
On April 10, a letter sent by a coalition of 16 NGOs and unions to the UAE Minister of Human Resources and Emiratization, Nasser bin Thani al Hamli, said:
Low-wage migrant workers remain acutely vulnerable to severe human rights violations, that increase their risk of infection from COVID-19.
Low-wage migrant workers remain tremendously vulnerable to severe human rights violations, increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19.
On March 26, the minister issued a ministerial decree allowing private companies to modify the contracts of migrant workers, forcing them to take unpaid leave or accept temporary reductions in their wages. This decision exclusively protects companies legally, as it leaves expatriate workers without the right to complain or go to court.
Qatari migrant workers are not allowed to form unions. Many are exploited with hard jobs, long hours and low wages. COVID-19 has revealed another chronic problem: the lack of health care and adequate housing. The fall in oil prices has led to the dismissal of hundreds of migrant workers, for which many have ended up on the street.
In a statement on April 15, Amnesty International said that Qatari authorities had detained and expelled dozens of foreign workers after informing them that they would be tested for COVID-19.
On May 23, one hundred foreign workers they manifested in Doha to report that the Qatari authorities were not paying their wages.
Local sources confirmed that migrant workers working on the works for the 2020 World Cup suffered serious human rights violations, such as low wages and long working hours in inclement sunshine. They cannot cancel their contract or return to their country. A recent Amnesty International UK report on June 10 confirmed those conditions, mentioning workers who have not received their wages for seven consecutive months.
Bahrain also attacks migrant workers. On June 5, parliamentarian Ghazi al Rahma announced that he and several deputies would present a proposal to amend the labor law in the private sector, to favor Balearic citizens in the process of hiring companies and facilitate the dismissal of workers. foreign.
The Persian Gulf states must abolish the kafala system, ratify the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and their Families, and grant equal civil rights to all migrant workers.