The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) hosted prior to the COVID19 outbreak, about 23 million migrant workers spread amongst the six member states. Since the GCC states gained their independence, migrant workers have played a crucial role in their economic growth and development. However, in recent years the calls for nationalization of the workforce in response to increased youth unemployment rates in some GCC states led to the undermining of workers’ rights.
Saudi Arabia and Oman maintain the lowest percentage of migrant workers. About 40% of their population originates from outside the country; 12 million in Saudi Arabia and 1.9 million in Oman are migrant workers. The populations of Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are overwhelmingly migrant workers, with figures surpassing two-thirds of their total population. Qatar’s migrant population makes up 95% of its total labor force, a percentage that has increased due to construction projects for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup. Nearly 88% of the 2.8 million population in Qatar is made up of migrant workers, the highest percentage in the region.
Within each GCC country, migrant workers are vulnerable to wage abuse in the form of unpaid overtime, arbitrary deductions, delayed wages, withholding of wages, unpaid wages, or inaccurate wages. Due to the rampant human rights abuses that migrant workers often endure throughout the GCC countries, a high suicide rate is common. Suicides have increased significantly due to the widespread impact of the COVID19 pandemic. Some GCC states have made some progress in furthering migrant workers’ rights. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made concerted efforts to create legal protections for migrant workers in the private sector including forbidding passport confiscation and recruitment fees. However, nationalization efforts usually undermine these improvements. Oman and Kuwait recently instituted nationalization laws that prohibit migrant workers from entering into certain professions; an act created to protect local workers from low wage foreign competition. The impact of COVID19 has fallen mainly on the migrant worker populations, primarily due to overcrowding in migrant housing camps.
Many in the GCC have worked to end human rights abuses against migrant workers in their respective countries. However, a great deal more must be done to create humane conditions for these workers, especially now with the pandemic worsening their work and living conditions.
What are the main challenges facing migrant workers in the GCC states? How did COVID19 deteriorate their situation? What are the improvements made by each GCC state and what more is required? How much has international scrutiny driven these changes?
Featured Speakers: Mariam Bhacker (moderator), Dr. Hend Abdulrahman Al Muftah, Dr. Jasim Husain, Dr. Zahra Babar, and Vani Saraswathi.
Mariam Bhacker (moderator)
Manager on the Forced Labor & Human Trafficking, Humanity United
Mariam is a manager on Forced Labor and Human Trafficking where she works with grantees and partners on safer labor migration to the Gulf.
Prior to joining Humanity United, Mariam was a Senior Project Manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. At the Centre, Mariam led work to increase corporate accountability for migrant workers’ rights in the region. Mariam has published research on the treatment of migrant workers in the construction and hospitality sectors, access to healthcare among migrant workers, and Gulf aid flows to Africa.
Mariam holds a MSc in Global Health from the University of California, San Francisco and a BSc in Natural Sciences from the University of Durham, England.
Dr. Hend Abdulrahman Al Muftah
Member of Qatar’s Majlis Al-Shura; Academic, Researcher and Professional Executive Leader; Vice President, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies
Academically, Dr. Hend Al Muftah is an Associate Professor of Human Resources Management at Qatar University since (2004-present) and Public Administration at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies (since 2015-present). Her main research interests include human capital issues in the perspective of human resources, mainly training and education, Qatarization, leadership, labor turnover, female employment and empowerment, migration and “Kafala”. In addition, she is also interested in institutional effectiveness, and public administration. She participated in many national, regional and international conferences and published many research papers and articles in local, regional and international journals. She also conducted and delivered many training courses and workshops in the management and administration areas, and strategic planning, locally and regionally.
She is also the author of “Human Capital Formation in Qatar in 2010 (in English) and “Issues in the Management (in Arabic) in 2012. In addition, she had participated in writing some chapters in some international books covering Qatar’s case in terms of human capital, training, education, and demographic changes and challenges. In addition, she published many papers in different areas in international journals.
Professionally, Dr. Hend Al Muftah has over 15 years of leadership and consulting experience in educational, governmental and NGOs organizations. She served as the Director of Human Resources Department at QU (2004-2008), Consultant for the VP&CFO at QU (2009) and Consultant for the Minister of Business & Trade (2010), HR Director at Rail Company (2012), and Executive Director of Childhood Cultural Centre (April 20012-Sep 2014). Currently she serves as the VP, Administration & Finance at Doha Institute since January 2015. During her leadership roles, she mainly served in developing re-structured or institutionalizing newly established organizations. Her role in those organizations included building or reviewing administrative and finance policies and procedures, system, organizational culture, and strategic plans. She is the Chair of Library and information Association in Qatar, under establishment, the Chair of Arab HEUG, and a member at the international advisory board of HEUG (Higher Education Users Group based in the USA), and VP at The International Organization for Women’s empowerment (based in UK).
In terms of community services, she was involved as a member in tens of local task force and committees, most recognized are: QU Reform Project (2004-08), QU Strategic Plan Committee, “Selatek Project” (2007-08) with Qatar Foundation (QF), and Labor Market Strategy (2005-07), National Development Strategy (2009-10) & Economic Diversification and Economic Development with General Secretary for Development Planning (GSDP) in Qatar and some Human Development Reports.
She is also social activist and columnist in some local and regional newspaper. She has been acknowledged during 2015 and 2016 as the most influential 50 people in the Qatari social media, and ranked 53 amongst the Top 100 leaders from Multilateral organizations in October 2018.
Dr. Jasim Husain
Former Member of the Bahraini Parliament
Dr. Husain’s career highlights include membership in Bahrain’s parliament by virtue of being elected in 2006 and 2010, where he served on the Finance & Economic Committee. Dr. Husain was appointed as Director of the Economic Research Unit at the University of Bahrain between 2005 and 2006, and also taught in the College of Business Administration at the University of Bahrain. He contributed to different publications within The Economist Group concerning GCC countries between 1996 and 2006. Dr. Jasim developed a book in Arabic discussing economic policy choices for GCC economies, notably the possible merits of linking local currencies to the US dollar and/or other currencies.
Associate Editor and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.org
Vani is the author of Stories of Origin: The Invisible Lives of Migrants in the Gulf. The book is an anthology of reporting from seven origin countries over a period of three years.
Vani moved to Qatar in 1999, working with several local and regional publications, and launching some of Qatar’s leading periodicals during her 17-year stint there. During her stay in Qatar she, along with likeminded people, mobilised a grassroots community to help migrants in distress. She writes extensively on human rights issues.
Since 2014, in her role with Migrant-Rights.org she reports from the Gulf states and countries of origin. She also organises advocacy projects and human rights training targeting individual employers, embassies, recruitment agents and businesses in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE, working with nationals and longterm residents in these countries. A special emphasis is on female migrants, including domestic workers. Much of her advocacy effort is geared towards mainstreaming issues facing female migrant workers.
Migrant-Rights.org is a one of its kind bi-lingual content based advocacy platform that focusses on the GCC states and the corridors of migration, Asia & Africa. It was started 13 years ago by activist Esra’a El Shafei.
Vani divides her time between India, Qatar and other GCC states.
Dr. Zahra Babar
Associate Director for Research, CIRS at Georgetown University in Qatar
Dr. Babar previously worked for the United Nations Development Program and the International Labour Organization. She has published several articles and book chapters, most recently, “Labor Migration in the Persian Gulf”, in The Routledge Handbook of Persian Gulf Politics, Ed., Mehran Kamrava (Routledge, 2020); “Migrant labor and human rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries”, in Why Human Rights Still Matter in Contemporary Global Affairs, Ed., Mahmood Monshipouri, (Routledge, 2020); “Understanding Labour Migration Policies in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries” in Asianization of Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries, eds. S. Irudaya Rajan and Ginu Zacharia Oommen, (Springer, 2020); and “Gender and Mobility: Qatar’s Highly Skilled Female Migrants in Context,” with M. Ewers and N. Khattab, Migration and Development, (2020). She served as editor for the volume, Mobility and Forced Displacement in the Middle East (Oxford University Press 2020), editor of the volume Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC (Oxford University Press 2017), and co-editor with M. Kamrava, Migrant Labour in the Persian Gulf (Columbia University Press/Hurst 2012).