x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Migrant worker policy requires regional dialogue

Without scores of those workers over many years, the GCC would be a very different place – indeed, it would be unrecognisable to what it is today, writes HA Hellyer

Earlier this week, Amnesty International released a report entitled My Sleep is My Break: Exploitation of Domestic Workers in Qatar. The report, as its title indicates, focuses on the abuses of domestic workers that take place in Qatar. It makes for damning reading, but the reality is that this problem is larger than domestic workers and Qatar. Indeed, it is an issue that reverberates around the region.

The report describes a number of procedures and a legal framework that is Qatari in nature, but many of those same procedures and laws exist in other parts of the GCC. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any GCC country that does not suffer from some flaws in its migrant worker policy.

Most members of the GCC continue to exist with a particular demographic reality, namely that the indigenous population, who almost exclusively make up the citizenry, are a minority. Expatriates will invariably remain as expatriates – with a few exceptions. Consequently, the lines of society are drawn between those who do have social, political and economic capital and those who do not. Migrant workers fall into the latter category.

In the most extreme cases, this can leave some migrant workers open to all sorts of abuses. It does not necessarily enforce such exploitation – but it does mean that without a truly vigorous effort to push against such mistreatment, workers can, in the worst of circumstances, suffer from forced labour, human trafficking and sexual violence.

This happens in countries like the US and the UK as well, but it is difficult to conceive of this happening with the same sort of impunity. That fact has as much to do with how migrants are able become citizens in those countries, a process that gives them political capital in the country that becomes their adopted home.

The citizenship question is a sensitive one to breach within the GCC. But, at the higher levels of government in a number of GCC states, there is a recognition that some sort of national and regional consideration of this issue needs to be undertaken.

Nevertheless, while the situation of labour rights for migrant workers is affected by the citizenship discussion, it is not hostage to it.

Much of the GCC is, in effect, unthinkable without the contribution of migrant workers.

For many in the higher echelons of government in GCC countries, there is already a realisation that working-class migrant workers have to be protected by a set of fundamental rights. The question, of course, is how to afford that protection.

Following Amnesty’s previous report on migrant workers late last year, the Qatari government announced the law firm DLA Piper would examine the report’s findings as part of a wider review.

If one takes that commitment at face value, it shows that genuine concerns can be raised by civil rights and human rights organisations as part of a broader conversation.

Independent organisations looking to put forward such concerns, as well as international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation, should be not only permitted but welcomed into the region to offer constructive and critical advice to address such problems.

The response of governments in the GCC – who have no ethical interest in allowing any sort of abuse of migrant workers, whether by neglect or otherwise – should be to address such concerns within the framework of law and society. Legislation should take heed of the need to institute appropriate penalties, while educational institutions and media establishments should take on the cultural responsibility to inculcate appropriate attitudes.

The reality is that regardless of these changes – or lack thereof – migrants from disadvantaged backgrounds will continue to come to the GCC to seek employment. Their governments should take measures in the countries of origin to ensure there is a reporting mechanism for their citizens to report any incidents of abuse to them, and assist them in engaging fully with the legal system.

Clearly, there is always going to be a “public relations” imperative in responding to reports of this nature. No country’s diplomatic corps enjoys having to explain abuses abroad. Rather than wait for that, GCC countries and governments can – and should – take the initiative to improve the lot of migrant workers.

Without scores of those workers over many years, the GCC would be a very different place – indeed, it would be unrecognisable to what it is today. Likewise, the historical traditions of the GCC demand treating the guest with great hospitality. The GCC has never been in more need of those traditions than today.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer