The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf

As France seeks to partner with the UAE on the Mali intervention, HRW draws attention to the ongoing issue of migrant worker exploitation in the Gulf.
By: /
January 16, 2013
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In a recent report, Human Rights Watch has come out against the UAE’s policies towards migrant workers – policies that have grown more repressive since the Arab Spring. According to HRW’s analysts, authorities have been determined to silence critics across the Federation. With migrant workers making up 4/5ths of the population, the group is a major target for lawmakers and enforcers.

This problem is pervasive across the Gulf States. In Karen Elliot House’s 2012 monograph On Saudi Arabia, the professor, who spent time embedded in the Gulf’s most dictatorial monarchy, discusses the imbalance that emerges in a society whose economy runs almost entirely on the productivity of foreign workers. Divisions fester between the local and foreign population, and increasingly, migrant workers are targeted by government crackdowns. These workers lack the network, connections, and ability to navigate the local bureaucracy necessary to mounting an effective defense of their rights. Across the region, migrants face limits on freedom of travel, speech, and access to due process in criminal convictions. HRW describes the history and extent of these violations:


Despite years of criticism, the UAE has failed to address the shortcomings in its legal and regulatory framework that facilitate the serious exploitation of migrant workers… The UAE’s crackdown on domestic critics and their right to free expression began in March 2011, when 132 Emiratis signed a petition requesting full election by universal suffrage and law-making powers for a key branch of the UAE government, the Federal National Council. This led to a number of high-profile arrests and prosecutions in 2011 for “insulting” the country’s rulers.


Punishments migrant workers face in the Gulf States range from warrantless detainment to execution. Last week, the New Yorkerhighlighted the case of a Sri Lankan maid, implicated in the death of an infant charge. The maid faced penalty of death. Bashrat Peer, who profiled the young woman, elaborates on the plight of foreign nationals working in the Saudi Kingdom and neighboring states:


Although their remittances lift their societies from stark poverty, a foreign maid steps into a world of abuse, overwork, and suspicion. Migrant workers enter Saudi Arabia and most other oil-rich Middle Eastern countries through a system known as kafala, or sponsorship. Kafala has happier roots; it is the Bedouin tradition of granting a stranger temporary refuge and feeding him as long as he wishes. In the modern Arab world, kafala has become an oppressive, non-transferable visa regime, which ensures that a foreign worker can only work for the kafeel, the employer who sponsored his/her visa. On a worker’s arrival, the kafeel generally confiscates his or her passport, and the worker is left with little protection.


These governments are now attempting to keep up with the rate of change in an era of enhanced and expanded communication. The UAE has begun to legislate against perceived cybercrime, and for the first time, has issued a sweeping decree limiting Internet activity. Joe Stork, HRW’s Deputy Middle East director, says that, “the UAE’s cybercrimes decree reflects an attempt to ban even the most tempered criticism… the new cybercrime law is the act of a government out of step and out of touch with international norms.” Another report from the rights watchdog’s Middle East offices describes the restrictive nature of the decree, which bans online critique of government officials, advocating for democratic reforms, or attempting to use social media as a tool to facilitate the organization of protests or political assembly.

This ban has a great impact on migrant workers, whose monitored internet communications are subject to major scrutiny, and who lack the political representation to defend their online activity.

HRW’s report urged French President Hollande to pressure the UAE on these issues, as he arrives for his first official visit to the Gulf State this week. Kenneth Roth, the organization’s Executive Director, has used Twitter to express his opposition to France’s further integration with a regime that is ‘intensifying repression.’

In spite of this, Hollande has chosen to deepen security ties and address shared energy issues, hoping to secure the Emirates’ support for France’s Mali intervention.  Support from the Emirates may prove critical to resolving that crisis, but the UAE seems unlikely to begin promoting the protection of humans rights more broadly, for fear of exposing their domestic policies to further criticism.