26 March 2014

Among the haystacks

Asian migration to the Gulf

As we celebrate the Asian Century, don't forget that the majority of emigrants from Asia go to the Gulf countries, where many suffer terribly -- to this very day.

As we celebrate the Asian Century, don't forget that the majority of emigrants from Asia go to the Gulf countries, where many suffer terribly -- to this very day.

Large scale migration from Asia to the Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates) developed rapidly after the oil price rises of 1973. In the 1970s, this involved mainly male migrants for construction, initially from India and Pakistan, then from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea. Many of these projects were led by Korean construction companies.

From the mid-1980s, as living standards rose, there was a progressive feminization of Asian migrant labor in the Gulf, with a growing demand for domestic workers, nurses, sales staff and other service personnel. Females now account for about 40% of Asian migrants in the Gulf countries.

Asian migration to the Gulf has become more differentiated over time. While many migrants remain low-skilled laborers, others have semi-skilled or skilled jobs as drivers, mechanics, building tradesmen. Others have professional or para-professional qualifications (engineers, nurses, and medical practitioners). Asians also fill many managerial and technical posts, even if they sometimes report to senior personnel recruited from Europe or North America.

In recent years, over 3 million Asian migrants have left annually for the Gulf. South Asian countries like India (610,000), Pakistan (420,000), Bangladesh (290,000), Nepal (240,000) and Sri Lanka (230,000) are the principal countries of origin, along with South East Asian countries such as the Philippines (660,000) and Indonesia (200,000). Overall, there are close to 30 million migrants in the Gulf region.

These migrants are driven by "push" factors such as poverty at home, and the incapacity of their local economies to generate jobs for their bulging populations and to take advantage of their demographic dividends. The decision to migrate can often be a family one, and can even be conceived as an insurance policy against possible crop failure, or a fast way of repaying family debt incurred for health and other emergencies.

They are also attracted by "pull" factors like job opportunities and the possibility of sending back home financial remittances. In recent years, the Gulf countries have generated very substantial migrants' remittances -- Saudi Arabia ($28 billion in 2011), Kuwait ($12 billion), UAE ($11 billion), Qatar ($7 billion), Oman ($7 billion), and Bahrain ($2 billion).

Network factors are also important through the dominant role of personal/informal networks and private recruiting agencies (both registered and unregistered).

These Asian migrants make major contributions to their Gulf destination countries where they make up around 40% of the population overall, and two-thirds of the labor force. Some 90% of private sector jobs in the Gulf are occupied by migrants.

Local men are disproportionately employed in public sector jobs that are non-strenuous, highly remunerative and offer various benefits. Labor force participation rates of local women remain low. Though various strategies have been adopted by Gulf countries to reduce their reliance on migrants, the extent to which such policies will be successful is debatable, due to cultural reasons and the poor quality of skilled labor.

Nevertheless, these migrants are only hired as temporary contract workers who are not allowed to settle permanently or bring their families. Moreover, as the International Labor Organization documented in a 2005 report, these migrants, especially the women, work in very challenging circumstances.

Among the issues identified were: non-remunerated overtime work; non-payment of wages; average working hours per week over 100 hours; little or no time off work; physical (including sexual), psychological and verbal abuse; vulnerability to sexual abuse by their male employers, who are often also their visa sponsors; migration agents exploit women migrant workers by overcharging for costs such as passports and other government fees; most domestic workers arrive at their destination country without having a signed contract; the system for addressing foreign workers' complaints is inadequate or nonexistent; labor laws generally do not cover female domestic workers because they are not considered employees; and domestic workers are also excluded from labor protection under any other national law.

The ILO did note that not all is bad! For example in 2003, Bahrain announced a national plan to assist abused foreign workers that includes temporary shelters and a help hotline. New domestic workers in Bahrain would also have access to a guide to rights and duties, which will be available in embassies, recruitment offices, and points of entry.

The past decade has seen many attempts from governments of migrant-sending countries, international cooperation, NGOs, and the media to improve migrants' conditions in the Gulf. International responses include the ILO's Domestic Workers Convention, the ILO Multilateral Framework on Labor Migration, and the UN's Global Forum on Migration and Development. But most regrettably, the situation remains unsatisfactory for too many Asian migrants.

According to Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch, speaking last year on migrant worker abuse in the Gulf, there is systemic abuse of human rights in the region enabled by “a triangle of oppression” which seeks to exploit domestic and construction workers recruited from the nations in South, Central, and East Asia. The recruits, eager for the job opportunities offered by the wealthy nations of the Persian Gulf, arrive in their new host countries to find themselves in a rigid racial and ethnic hierarchy that, in cooperation with an oppressive legal framework, suppresses their basic human rights, including their right to terminate their own employment.

Employers often confiscate passports and garnish workers’ wages, even refusing to issue payment until remunerated for the hefty fees levied by recruiters. Workers, lodged in deplorable housing and forced to labor long hours often in dangerous conditions without pay, cannot even flee these circumstances due to absconding laws that threaten migrants with imprisonment.

An end to this oppression is “achievable,” in Whitson’s view, but only if governments would take the initiative to abolish the restrictive sponsorship laws, which permit exploitation by placing immigrants in the custody of native individuals, and prosecute those that violate existing laws protecting migrants.

To bring us right up to date, the Migrants Rights website provides a report on migrants' rights abuses for the month of January 2013 which includes Saudi Arabia’s much publicized execution of Sri Lankan worker Rizana Nafeek. Then there was the case of over 7,000 Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, and Filipino who halted work on a state project after private subcontractors failed to pay their salaries. In Bahrain, employer neglect caused the death of over 13 workers in a labor camp.

Staggering reports of sexual abuse also surfaced throughout the region. In Kuwait, a Filipina maid escaped her sponsor’s home after a year of sexual assault by both her employer and his two brothers. Another maid was raped and badly beaten by her 70 year-old sponsor. In the UAE, two maids continue to seek shelter at the Nepali embassy. The women were trafficked into the country on forged documents, and then sold to sponsors. One maid endured physical and sexual abuse, while the other was regularly tortured psychologically.

This is just a snippet of the reports of migrant abuse in the region, a region where perhaps most cases of migrant abuse are reported neither to authorities nor by the media.

Why do Asian migrants go to the Gulf if the situation is as bad as this?

Obviously, not every migrant is subject to human rights' abuses. Many come from situations of desperate poverty, and are willing to tolerate this situation, just to be able to send remittances home to their families. Some may have been pushed by their patriarchal and authoritarian families to migrate in order to earn remittances for the family. And many decisions to migrate are based on insufficient and imperfect information, or just plain deception.

In short, there is still a vast agenda for migrants' national governments, international organizations and NGOs to work on, in the hope that migrants basic rights be respected in the Gulf region, and that they be treated like human beings.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, migration, Gulf countries, Middle East, remittances, migrants' rights, migrant abuses

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