x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Join forces to help migrant labourers, GCC told

Take our poll: GCC states are the target of criticism for supposed apathy to protecting migrant workers but a more coordinated structure could improve perceptions.

ABU DHABI // An academic yesterday called for the Gulf Cooperation Council to harmonise its migration management policy as the states share similar concerns.

Zahra Babar, the assistant director of research at the Centre for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, said GCC states are the target of criticism for supposed apathy to protecting migrant workers but a more coordinated structure could improve perceptions.

She said GCC countries share similar structural features, such as the kafala, or worker-sponsorship, system and the transnational labour brokerage system that brings workers to the Arabian Gulf.

Dr Babar also said that the launch of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue in 2008 has provided a platform for the labour ministries in the six GCC states to come together and work with labour-sending countries.

"A lot of people had wished for the GCC to have a regional harmonised migration policy," Dr Babar said.

"This has not happened yet but the Abu Dhabi Dialogue is a great initial platform for them to work and to address their labour needs, and the concerns of labour-sending countries.

"They are able to talk about the challenges they are facing, coordinate and harmonise policies a little more, in particular engaging with the sending countries."

The first Abu Dhabi Dialogue was held to forge greater partnerships between the GCC destination countries and countries sending labourers, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"They have not dismantled the kafala system, this sponsorship arrangement, but what they are trying to do is address certain problematic areas," said Dr Babar.

"In 2009, Bahrain implemented the mobility law allowing migrants to change employers without requiring the consent of the sponsor. The law frees them up and they no longer risk deportation and cancellation of their visas."

The mobility law, she said, also addresses the imbalance between the employer and worker: "They are more accountable and will not be abusing the rights of the worker." Kuwait has also implement similar changes, allowing workers to change places of employment without losing their visa status.

"But an important step that addressed the common complaint raised by workers - delayed and non-payment of wages - was the UAE's wage protection system (WFS)," she said.

In 2009, the Ministry of Labour and the Central Bank introduced WFS. Employers are required to pay the workers' salaries through an electronic transfer system, which creates a direct link between the ministry, the Central Bank and the employer.

"It's a mechanism that each of the countries can address," Dr Babar said.

"Another important reform developed by the UAE with India is tackling the problem of contract substitution through the electronic contract validation and registration system.

"The pilot scheme requires full disclosure of workers' employment for the processing of work permits by the ministry."

Dr Babar said the GCC should also take steps to improve migration of the highly skilled.

"Globalisation has led to an increase of mobility of high-skilled workers, so the GCC states have to focus on this knowledge gap on this topic, leveraging it on an international level," she said.

At yesterday's labour mobility conference, Dr Babar also raised the issue of the feminisation of migration and women's vulnerability to discrimination.

"Migration policies are gender blind right now," she said. "There should be specific policies that are geared on supporting women. Research has focused exclusively on domestic workers and there has been little awareness of other women who are contributing to the economy."

Further research is also required on the contribution of migration to the development of the GCC, and not only its impact on demography, she said.

In addition, the researcher spoke of how certain categories of migrants are given more rights than others in terms of family unification and a policy discussion on this subject has often been neglected in the GCC.

"The family is a key social unit and important to everybody who lives in the Gulf," she said. "Imposing a certain policy which limits migrants rights to be with their spouses and dependent children will lead to a negative impact on the social and cultural fabric of the region."

However, she said, most of the migrants are men and women who cannot afford to bring their families, even if policies enabled them do so.

rruiz@thenational.ae