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Southeast Asian Labor In Arab Countries: Migrant Workers or Modern-day Slaves?

Southeast Asian Labor In Arab Countries: Migrant Workers or Modern-day Slaves?

The dream of employment has gotten all of us moving from one place to another. One cannot say it’s any different for the unskilled, blue-collared workers from Southeast Asian countries. Migrant workers from these countries move overseas each year to make ends meet.

The most benefitted of this are the some of the Persian Gulf Regions also known as the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). The GCC member countries are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Each of these nations has witnessed a steadily growing immigrant labour workforce over the past few decades.

In a world where demographic and economic disparities are plentiful, the movement of people across borders in search of improved livelihoods and enhanced financial opportunities is neither new nor unique to the Persian Gulf. Labor migration is a part of a worldwide phenomenon, offering as much incentive to the employing economies as to the ones the employees come from.

Why do they go to Persian Gulf Countries?

A large part of the Southeast Asian demographic fights hunger, unemployment, and disease at a day-to-day level. Living conditions are deplorable and financial opportunities are hard to come by. In light of this, the prospect of making an earning in a potentially stronger currency lures many.

The governments in these countries have extended a supportive hand to the process wherever feasible, considering it eases the pressure on the need for job creation, reduces the unemployed population in the country, and creates a healthy inflow of foreign currency. The widespread discovery of oil has truly been a boon for the states in the Persian Gulf.

Where vast patches of unfertile land stood yesterday, we have bustling airports, overflowing malls, skyscrapers towering through clouds and cities that don’t sleep. In the eyes of all of those living in neglected pockets of our developing economies–the ill-fed, the uneducated, the ignored–this is a land of magical possibilities.

How are they recruited?

The immigrant workers in the Middle East are generally recruited through the “kafala” (or Kefala in Arabic) system – a legal sponsorship that ties the employment and the residency of a domestic worker to a specific employer. The system requires each unskilled laborer to have an in-country sponsor (usually the employer) who is responsible for their visa and legal status. The system is responsible for monitoring immigrant laborers, working primarily in the construction and domestic-household sectors.

Conditions of the Migrant Labors

The laborers are lured to the Persian Gulf countries with the prospect of better jobs and improved livelihoods. That, however, falls a few steps short of reality. As they say, there’s nothing like a free lunch! There’s an ugly side to this employment. The UAE stands testament to this.

While on the one hand, we know the country for its fancy cities and their affluent individuals, on the other hand, an observant visit there paints quite a different picture. Of the 9.2 million people living in the UAE, a staggering 92% are expats and migrant workers. These 92% don’t know the same UAE that we outsiders do. The laborers are the subjected to very low wage at the construction sites in spite of working for long hours. Adding to that the labors are also provided with very small accommodations with filthy conditions.

The struggle does not end here. The laborers are also treated differently because of the huge gap between the Rich and the Poor, resulting in them being subjected to racism and discrimination. This just does not end here. On my visit to the Airports at Kuwait and Bahrain I found out that they were full of laborers, including women, from Southeast Asian countries and that were are confined to cleaning the public washrooms. These laborers have also confessed to not being treated equally by the Arab officials and being treated as slaves.

Most of them there were in debt and too poor to return home, with many working 12 hour shifts six days a week.. When I shifted to Vasant Kunj area of South West Delhi, I was introduced to Harish, the security guard of my building. Harish had earlier worked in Barka, a coastal city in the region Al Bāţinah of Oman from 2011 – 2013 at a construction site. Harish mentioned how he had been taken to Muscat with the promise of a job on a given fixed income but in reality his income was far lower than what he was promised. Not only this but his passport was also taken away by the officials at the construction site until the termination of the contract. As per him, the labors working there are MODERN DAY SLAVES.

 INGOs and the Government

The European council held a meeting on 4 December 2013 to discuss the growing concern about migrant workers’ rights in the UAE and its neighbor, Qatar. The chair of the European parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, said migrant workers in the UAE, were exploited on a daily basis.

An October 2014 Human Rights Watch report, “I Already Bought You,” and an April 2014 Amnesty International report, “My Sleep is My Break,” found common patterns of abuse against domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar respectively, including unpaid wages, no rest periods, excessive workloads, food deprivation, and confinement in the workplace. Human Rights Watch (a US-based NGO) has established a set of guidelines to protect the rights of migrant workers.

The 2003 United Nations ​International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is an international agreement governing the protection of migrant workers and families. It aims to ensure that migrants enjoy the same rights and work conditions as the nationals – including safe living and working conditions, freedom of thought and religion, protection from physical and mental abuse, access to legal, education and social services, access to information regarding their rights, and the right to participate in trade unions. International and domestic companies operating in Gulf Cooperation Council countries should adopt these standards to ensure that they, their contractors and sub-contractors, respect the rights of migrant workers in their employment.

However, the responsibility for protecting migrant workers falls squarely in the laps of the governments. In order to maintain the safety and the security of the migrant labors in the Gulf Countries, the Indian Government came up with the initiative of ECR passports. As per the Emigration Act, 1983, Emigration Check Required (ECR) category passport holders are required to obtain an “Emigration Clearance” from the office of Protector of Emigrants (POE), Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs before going to any of the following countries: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand (emigration banned). The ECR status is introduced to check illegal trafficking in humans including young, uneducated women for sexual exploitation, children, and other uneducated men for exploitation of their labor. Conclusion Migrant workers play a key economic role. They fill labor demands in host countries and provide much-needed income for their own countries. Migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have provided the labor for construction booms in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. More and more measures ought to be taken in order to endorse protections for migrant workers. Having an increased dialogue between the countries of labor sending and labor receiving could be seen as an essential step into ensuring the security and safety of the workers. Increased regional cooperation among Southeast Asian countries is also an important step towards providing the migrant workers a safe heaven in the Persian Gulf region.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author (Pankhury Harbansh) alone and not the CEOWORLD magazine.

Pankhury Harbansh

Pankhury Harbansh Verified account

Guest columnist at CEOWORLD magazine
An opinionated guest columnist at the CEOWORLD magazine. Pursuing a Master's degree at School of International Studies - Jawaharlal Nehru University. Pankhury is an expert on international relations, public justice, and human rights.
Pankhury Harbansh

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