Rights group offers guidelines for builders in Gulf states

Dubai, December 23

Human Rights Watch released a set of guidelines on Tuesday that it says construction companies in oil-rich Gulf Arab states should follow to ensure basic rights for migrant workers.

The New York-based rights group’s latest recommendations shift the focus toward employers and are aimed at tackling some of the biggest abuses facing millions of low-paid labourers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

They include ensuring that contractors and sub-contractors pay all recruiting fees, provide workers with places to keep their passports, provide decent accommodation, abide by requirements for maximum working hours and overtime pay, and pay workers their full wages on time.

The group also urged companies to appoint outside monitors to ensure workers are receiving basic labour protections in practice, not just on paper.

“In the face of rampant abuse and exploitation of worker’s rights in GCC countries, construction firms need to step up to protect their workforce,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director.

Migrant workers in the Gulf are employed under a sponsorship system known as kafala that effectively ties labourers to their employer and makes it difficult for workers to change jobs without getting their boss’ approval. Activists say the system leaves workers open to abuse.

It is common for workers to pay hefty fees to recruiters back home to secure employment, which for many turns out to be different than what was promised once they arrive. Human Rights Watch says recruiting costs can run as high as $3,000 and that it can take labourers up to three years to pay those fees back.

Many labourers in the Gulf construction industry come from South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Gulf states have taken some steps to improve working conditions. Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest economy, this year implemented a number of amendments to its labour law that imposed or increased penalties for violations. The Emirates is putting in place reforms starting January 1 aimed at tightening oversight of employment agreements.

Qatar, which has faced intense scrutiny over its labour practices since winning the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, has made changes to its labour policies too. Its government communications office acknowledged this week that labour reform ‘is still a work in progress’.

Activists say more needs to be done.

The International Trade Union Confederation challenged Qatar to do away with the kafala system and implement other reforms in a new report this week.