The  Gulf region is a place of immense paradox. On one hand, oil has unlocked unparalleled wealth and growth, provoking massive expansions of infrastructure, architecture, and quality of life for its citizens. On the other, while such rapid growth has spurred demand for employment and increased access to a truly developed world, inequalities and human rights violations have soared, with benefits of the Gulf restricted from those who helped build it.

With a massive 23 million migrant workforce in this region, of which 40% are women according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the development of the Gulf has been largely dependent on migrant participation in its construction. With the romance of Gulf wealth offering abundant opportunities for migrant workers, large migration flows have taken place over the past five decades. In Qatar and the UAE, for instance, migrant workers make up almost 90% of the population (Asi 2020). Sectors such as construction, hospitality, retail, and travel have bloomed thanks to an expatriate workforce that accepts low wages, poor treatment, and a large workload. 

Petro-states, of which Gulf countries are some of the world’s leading protagonists, are not sustainable without good governance, leading to corruption and an eventual conclusion to their affluence. So, this begs the question, how long will the Gulf narrative of development be able to sustain itself with such a standard of labor and human rights? 

A brief history of migration in the Gulf

The Gulf’s wealth is a relatively new phenomenon dating back to the 1970s, so as follows, the notion of labor migration is also relatively new. The first oil boom in the region occurred in the 1970s, marking this decade as the beginning of the migration story into the region. Assistance was needed principally in its construction, with 80% of migrant workers coming from Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. South Asian workers were mostly employed in European companies and government agencies, making up around 247,700 of the workforce in 1970, demonstrating the clear preference for Arab workers. However, just 5 years after the New Gulf began its transformation, in 1975, the paradigm shifted and the plot changed in preference for South Asian workers, as the conflict in and between Middle Eastern countries grew and Arab migrants were increasingly seen as politically dangerous (Rahman 2010). 

The 1979 oil crisis, while known as a disaster for oil-consuming states, was a huge leap to prosperity for the Gulf as prices of oil rocketed, embellishing the region with more spending power. As a response, the Gulf began more extravagant projects of construction and introduced more extensive social welfare programs, creating a demand for 700,000 migrant workers by 1980, with 500,000 being from India (Rahman 2010).

The preference for South Asian migrant workers was further intensified by the second operation run by the United States and allies during the Gulf War in 1991. Such a crisis led to the displacement of a total of five million people including a large number of migrant workers who were either expelled or forced to leave. It was estimated that around two million were displaced during the conflict, including Arab and South Asian migrant workers in Iraq and Kuwait, who fled to Jordan and neighboring countries. Yemenis expatriates were also expelled from Saudi Arabia due to the Yemeni government’s support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Post-Gulf conflict, Jordanians and Palestinians also fled from Kuwait following the restoration of the emirate system (Van Hear 1995). It was at this moment that the fabrication of a non-Arab expatriate workforce began, particularly of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, through having a gap in the market to fill as well as growing mistrust of other Middle Eastern countries. By 2002, migrant workers in the GCC were cited as reaching 12.5 million, an increase of 733% in only 11 years (Rahman 2010). The legend of prosperity in the Gulf for foreigners was evident, particularly those coming from countries with significant poverty. Its sheer promise of opportunity for men and women gave them the chance to earn a decent wage and to support themselves as well as their families back home. It was the perfect narrative for Gulf countries to follow as they needed workers, and particularly workers who did not fall into the same labor protection categories as Gulf citizens.

Human rights in the Gulf

The issue of human rights in the Gulf has always been controversial, a topic that has recently re-entered the spotlight with the uncovering of at least 6,500 migrant workers deaths from 2010 to 2020 in Qatar, linked to the World Cup construction project. Yet, such a case is not new and demonstrates a long saga spanning decades of poor treatment and discrimination. For instance, 34,000 Indian migrant workers deaths were reported in the entire Gulf from January 2014 to October 2019. In the case of Qatar, the majority of deaths were associated with acute heart or respiratory failure induced by extreme weather conditions, a cause that is deemed to be “natural” thus not prompting any investigation or autopsy into the why and the how. 

The Kafala system, also known as the sponsorship system in the Gulf, is cited as being the main facilitator of human rights abuses. While having faced many reforms following international pressure, it remains the key mechanism permitting foreigners to work in the region. Essentially, it requires a local employer or a citizen of the Gulf to sponsor the visa application of an applicant wishing to work in the region, evoking a sense of dependency on the employer by the worker. The side effects stemming from this are deeply problematic through stripping individuals of their sense of autonomy and limiting their ability to exercise their rights through fear of losing their job. A particular problem is linked to the inability to change employers or to terminate employment contracts as an employer’s permission is required. In some countries, such as Qatar, full control of an individual’s life by an employer was permitted as permission was required to even get a driving license or rent a home. 

Reforms made, while moving in the right direction, have faced problems of non-implementation, particularly on the part of companies. Bahrain, for instance, claimed to have abolished the Kafala system, allowing migrants to change employers, as long as a three-month notice period is given. Qatar also stated to have left this system, no longer rendering it mandatory for employers to authorize a migrants exit from the country and allowing individuals with indefinite-term contracts to change employers after 5 years while those with indefinite-term contracts to change after the first contract has terminated. While these reforms have been made with the right intentions, as with many international principles of labor and human rights standards in the Gulf, they have not been necessarily enforced. Many companies, through bringing in revenue to the Gulf, escape scrutiny and monitoring, allowing the Kafala system to still function. An additional issue of the reforms is that they are prioritized for white-collar workers, leaving blue-collar workers with minimal improvement. 

Through this continuation of control, sponsors are put in a position where they can underpay wages, delay payment, and even restrict payment of wages altogether, despite the implementation of wage protection systems. Additional problems stem from passport confiscation, despite this practice being banned, rendering it impossible for an individual to return to their country. With this perpetuation of poor practices, forced labor and human slavery surface as significant risks for migrant workers. Additionally, workers have no real rights to form trade unions, a standard that is particularly emphasized for them as they are highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, as highlighted by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the ILO. 

Additional problems emerge regarding working conditions that individuals must endure. As was the case in Qatar, many men working in construction face health problems linked to harsh outdoor conditions, despite being in perfectly good condition when starting to work. Due to the limited training is given to migrant workers, many face work accidents due to falls, machinery, and even pesticides. The additional long workdays, lack of sick leave, and poor wages preventing access to private health care all exacerbate the problem. 

The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted another problematic aspect of migrant workers in the Gulf: living conditions. Migrant workers are usually housed by the employer, putting them into work camps wherein between 6 to 12 individuals share one room with even more sharing one bathroom. These camps are usually located far from the center, segregating these communities from everyday life. The Gulf has been particularly criticized on this subject during the current health climate for maintaining areas that can allow the covid-19 virus to propagate due to cramped and unsanitary conditions. 

All of these issues are difficult to change when one is in the position of a migrant worker. Seeking justice is no easy task, particularly when the ones we want to seek justice against have complete control over our legal status in a foreign country. While legal courts have been developed, normally, employers are notified when a case has been brought up against them, provoking termination of contracts and unpaid wages. Additionally, claims can take years to resolve, and with the probable job loss induced by the evoking of this procedure, many are left in limbo in the Gulf, without the right to residency and no money to wait out the processor to return home. This completely violates a standard set out by the ILO that mechanisms must exist to let employees air their grievances without fear of retribution. 

Women, who normally work in the domestic sector, face some particular forms of violations linked to their sector. Some report having communication denied with family members from their country of origin through the confiscation of phones, preventing the disclosure of violations they face to external parties. Racism is also present, which is particularly problematic for women originating from African countries, as well as violence and sexual harassment. The problem of sexual harassment is further aggravated as in some instances where such cases have been reported to authorities, the narrative is switched to portray migrant women as perpetrators, blocking off any resolution or justice to them.

Mental health and covid-19

With ongoing pressure for remittance from family back home and frequent violations of human and labor rights, high rates of mental health conditions have developed amongst migrant workers in the Gulf, with many seeing excessive alcohol use, drug use, and even suicide as the only solution. Regarding suicide, it has become a normalized subject with Asi (2020) noting dozens of deaths every year. Nevertheless, it remains a taboo subject facing very limited empirical research. 

The covid-19 pandemic has had a significant role in accelerating mental health problems as a result of widespread job loss leading to the nullification of residency permits and loss of sources of income, putting strain on not only employees but their families who depend on remittances in their countries of origin. With the added complication of border restrictions and closures,  many are left without a solution due to not being able to return home, exacerbating the risk of arrest and poverty. For those who have been able to retain employment, the cramped conditions of their housing situation entail that they are not able to socially distance effectively, further propagating the virus. In turn, due to a large amount of risk present in these housing situations, migrant workers are often blamed for the propagation of the virus, further villainizing their role in Gulf society.

To tackle this, Gulf states have obligated companies to take certain measures to address the problems linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, the UAE announced that all companies must provide housing to laid-off workers until they can find another job. Qatar also announced that companies must cover wages for all quarantined migrant workers. While such obligations have been reiterated by governments, the question remains, as with all announcements by the government, to what extent have they been implemented? A large degree of respect for human rights and labor rights remains at the discretion of companies who are not necessarily monitored on whether they respect the obligations imposed on them. While there are companies that do respect standards set out by Gulf states, there are also companies that fall through the net and can do what they essentially want, making it a game of Russian roulette on how a migrant worker’s stay will develop in the region. 

Protests by migrant employees

The Kafala system has a strong role in acting as a deterrent for migrant workers from engaging in civil unrest. Those who dare, however, put at risk their work contract, thus their entire eligibility to be in the Gulf, rendering protests quite rare among this group. 

Nevertheless, occasional protests do take place. During the construction of the Fountain Views hotel in Dubai, migrant workers from South Asia held a protest to demand higher wages. It was relatively short-lived with riot police resolving the issue within one hour of discussions with the workers, although it is unclear what was exactly discussed. In May 2020, there was another rare occurrence of protests in Qatar, with more than 100 migrant workers dissenting unpaid wages. As a response, the government claimed to have launched an investigation and took action against companies employing the workers, who had allegedly violated the wage protection system, although the overall outcome is uncertain.

Due to the growing surveillance on human rights in the Gulf, many international actors have begun to protest on behalf of migrant workers. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre noted that in June 2019, African Trade Unions launched a campaign across 10 countries to highlight abuses against African workers in the Gulf. In the UAE embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, workers presented to the embassy a letter containing a list of demands to protect workers from abuse. Yet, as Bison (2021) noted, racism against African workers continues and has only been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, thus it is unclear to what extent the Gulf takes these complaints seriously. The Gulf Labour Artist Coalition (GLC) has also been very vocal about the human rights violations linked to the construction of the Guggenheim and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi as well as the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. This group continuously works on highlighting the low pay these employees receive, the inadequate housing conditions as well as the overall growing economic and class divide in Abu Dhabi.

Predictions for the future and conclusions

The covid-19 pandemic has certainly aggravated the situation of migrant workers but it is difficult to predict how this pandemic will impact the pull factors regarding Gulf migration. Protests remain rare with limited impact, but that is not to say it will stay like this. As Rahman (2010) put it, “expatriate workers are a time bomb waiting to explode and unleash riots”. 

South Asian migration to the Gulf already began to decline before the pandemic, particularly from India, but not necessarily due to conditions of work and standards of rights. Calabrese (2020) noted that a significant reason for which the Gulf is gradually becoming less and less attractive is due to “sluggish” oil prices leading to wage stagnation. Furthermore, the Gulf has increased programs orientated to Gulf nationals to increase their employment in the private sector, which in turn has had an impact in reducing South Asian migration. Another reason for this change in migration is the fact that work permit renewal fees and taxes in the region have increased, driving up costs of living. In 2015, there were 781,000 Indian migrant workers in the Gulf; this has dropped to 334,000 Indian migrants in 2019, with the maintenance of this steady number since 2017. However,  with the damages induced to international economies by the covid-19 crisis, will the Gulf eventually choose to revert to their old system of opting for cheaper foreign labor? 

As long as pull and push factors are in play, migration will continue to the Gulf. That is not to say, however, that the system will remain undamaged. With inherent labor and human rights violations present, the system is not sustainable in terms of human rights but also with the added element of the Gulf being a petrostate, particularly as the world becomes steadily, but surely, more aware of rights obligations. With a constantly globalizing world, international actors and spectators are more aware of what is going on, allowing pressure to be an effective tactic to bring about change. Additionally, this reduction in migration to the Gulf could be an added motivator and lesson-learned to Gulf states and companies to improve standards of working and living that conform to international labor standards and conventions. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like