Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Asia
The United Nations in 2014 petitioned Qatar to abolish its regulatory framework governing the employment and residency of migrant workers, arguing the kafala system leads to dangerous working conditions and exploitation. Hundreds of foreign workers have died in the massive construction buildup underway for the 2022 World Cup, with estimates that as many as 4,000 workplace deaths could occur.
Under significant pressure from international organizations and human-rights groups to amend a system likened by some to modern-day slavery, the Qatari government in May 2014 announced a series of measures to amend the sponsorship system under which employers can prevent foreign workers from leaving their jobs or exiting the country. Six months after the announced reforms, however, Amnesty International and others pronounced progress too slow, and the government pledged additional legislative reforms in 2015.
Limited Labor Protections in the GCC and Beyond
Issue No. 7 of Top Ten of 2014
Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries attract the largest supply of foreign labor in the world, mostly because government jobs generated by oil wealth divert the small native-born populations away from the private sector. Migrant workers comprise 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce, and likewise constitute overwhelming majorities of the labor force in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia hosts around 9 million migrant workers, more than half its workforce.
The kafala system binds these migrant workers in a direct relationship with their private sponsoring recruiters or employers to a particular job for a specific period of time. The system codifies the centrality of sponsors, as workers cannot change their employment or leave the country without approval. Recruitment agencies, often sponsors themselves, orchestrate nearly every stage of labor migration, including filing visa documentation and providing migrants with information, logistical support, and loans for placement fees, which are often quite onerous. The competitiveness of the market compounds this dependency by increasing the costs of employment services, and indebting many migrants to their sponsor with high initial or return deployment costs and placement fees.
Southeast Asian countries, while key senders of migrant workers to the GCC, are also destinations for labor migrants within the region. Malaysia and Singapore draw on the region to fulfill their labor needs, with more than 1 million Indonesians in Malaysia and nearly 400,000 Malaysians in Singapore. Thailand hosts between 2.5 million to 3 million migrant workers, overwhelmingly from neighboring Burma and Cambodia. While Southeast Asian countries do not formally bind workers to their recruiters or employers as in the kafala system used in GCC countries, workers remain dependent on private recruitment agencies leading to mass cases of abuse and exploitation. In June 2014, weeks after a military coup in Thailand, nearly 200,000 unauthorized Cambodian laborers fled the country following rumors of a crackdown on migrant workers. Thousands have since returned amid a Thai government attempt to regulate labor migration with the implementation of expedited procedures at worker registration centers along the Thai-Cambodia border.
Cases of Exploitation
In March 2014, the International Labor Organization (ILO) called for a series of reforms to Qatar’s labor migration policies following its investigation into allegations that the kafala system led to violations of the Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor. A report to the ILO Director-General noted that sponsors confiscated the passports of estimated 86 percent of labor migrants. The report also documented the practice of employers using threats of wage withholding and deportation to prevent workers from escaping abusive workplace environments. In April, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants recommended Qatar abolish the kafala system, finding it a source of abuse and exploitation as migrants often arrive heavily indebted and live in substandard conditions. Domestic workers, excluded from Qatar’s labor law, were noted as particularly vulnerable. That same month, all GCC countries abstained from a vote to update the provisions in the aforementioned Convention.
Election of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the ILO governing board in June reignited international concerns regarding the kafala system. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) called on the ILO to investigate evidence of mass exploitation among thousands of migrant workers building a $27 billion complex of museums and luxury resorts in the UAE. Additionally, the exploitation and abuse of female migrant domestic workers in the UAE was detailed in a Human Rights Watch report released in late October.
The potential for private recruitment abuses is perhaps most visible within the kafala system, but private recruitment systems elsewhere, for example Southeast Asia, have also drawn scrutiny. In Malaysia, migrant conditions elicited censure for the exploitation that can result from reliance on sponsors. An investigation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor found abusive workplace conditions in electronics factories for global brands including Apple, Flextronics, Samsung, and Sony. Sponsors charged migrant workers illegally high recruitment fees, and with the confiscation of passports for nearly one-third of workers, most feared that they could not leave their jobs until they paid off their debt.
Bridging the Gap between Origin and Destination Countries
In light of these and other abuse allegations, sending-country governments have sought mechanisms to protect their citizens abroad. Many Middle Eastern and Asian countries have negotiated bilateral agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) regulating labor migration between sending and destination countries. Taking initiative, the Philippines has been a strong advocate for its overseas workers, negotiating 12 bilateral labor agreements with receiving countries, many of which include strict regulation of private recruitment practices and fees. Despite concerted efforts, the government has not been able to sign agreements with the main countries of destination for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Japan.
Burma, known for its own internal labor abuses, this year suspended the emigration of domestic workers to Hong Kong and Singapore after a widely reported case of abuse against an Indonesian maid surfaced in the former. Burma’s restrictions occurred only a year after it passed a law allowing its nationals to work in domestic jobs overseas, and three months after it sanctioned the first 19 Burmese domestic workers to land in Hong Kong. These responses may protect Filipino and Burmese workers from exploitation, but prevent migrants from seeking jobs and better pay abroad, thereby reducing remittances on which many countries of origin heavily rely.
Updating the Labor System
Given the focus on the GCC with Dubai hosting the 2020 World Expo and Qatar the World Cup two years later, international pressure has motivated the latter to pledge additional legislative reforms in 2015. Meanwhile, negotiations to develop an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) may encourage Southeast Asian destination countries to adopt some of the ILO Conventions protecting migrants’ rights. It remains to be seen if more action will be taken to limit the exploitation of migrant workers.
- Global Civil Society in Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council: Emerging Dilemmas and Opportunities
- Labor Migration in the United Arab Emirates: Challenges and Responses
- The Opening of Burmese Borders: Impacts on Migration
- Spheres of Exploitation: Thwarting Actors Who Profit from Illegal Labor, Domestic Servitude, and Sex Work
- What We Know About Regulating the Recruitment of Migrant Workers
- Regulating Private Recruitment in the Asia-Middle East Labour Migration Corridor
- Migration's Middlemen: Regulating Recruitment Agencies in the Philippines-United Arab Emirates Corridor
- Strengthening Pre-Departure Orientation Programmes in Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines
Agence France-Presse. 2014. Myanmar Suspends Work Permits For Maids Going to Singapore. September 14, 2014. Available Online.
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Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 2014. Recommendations from the 7th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour. Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar: November 20-21. Available Online.
Batty, David. 2014. Call for UN to Investigate Plight of Migrant Workers in the UAE. The Guardian, September 13, 2014. Available Online.
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ILO Governing Body. 2014. Report of the Director General, Eighth Supplementary Report: Report of the committee set up to examine the representation alleging non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29), made under article 24 of the ILO Constitution by the International Trade Union Confederation and the Building and Woodworkers International. 320th Session, Geneva, March 13-27, 2014. Available Online.
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Voice of America. 2014. After Crackdown Scare, Cambodian Workers Return to Thai Jobs. VOA News, July 1, 2014. Available Online.