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Workers return to their camps in Al Sajaa, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates on Friday, a holiday (image courtesy Gulf Labor)

Ahead of a meeting of labor ministers from Gulf and Asian states later this week, Human Rights Watch released a call for the reform of laws protecting migrant workers co-signed by 90 human rights organizations and unions worldwide. Of particular concern to the coalition of organizations are the debts shouldered in the recruitment process and restrictive visa and passport withholding practices affecting laborers working in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

“The GCC should work in closer coordination with — not separately from — countries of origin to develop labor migration policies that fully respect the human and labor rights of migrants,” Sharan Burrow of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations body, said in the November 23 statement from Human Rights Watch. The calls echo those made recently by the Gulf Labor group, a coalition of artists and activists pressuring the Guggenheim on workers rights issues surrounding the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on the Emirate’s Saadiyat Island.

In comments to Hyperallergic earlier this month, Gulf Labor’s Walid Raad specifically called on the Guggenheim to “publicly recommend that the UAE Ministry of Labor seek and follow the advice of experts from, for example, the International Labor Organization, to help the Ministry fine-tune the implementation and enforcement of existing laws, close loopholes in the law, and develop and implement new laws to protect workers (with regards to, for example, recruitment fees paid by workers).”

The 90 organizations issuing the call to the GCC states — a group comprising unions, like the United States’s AFL-CIO, and NGOs and advocacy groups from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Phillippines, and other labor exporters — issued the following list of recommendations:

  • Establish and enforce comprehensive labor law protections for migrant workers, including domestic workers;
  • Reform the kafala (sponsorship) visa system to ensure that workers can change employers without being required to first obtain their consent;
  • Remove the “exit permit” requirement in Saudi Arabia and Qatar;
  • Strengthen regulation and monitoring of labor recruitment agencies, including eliminating recruitment fees for workers;
  • Ensure that migrants have access to justice and support services; and
  • Expand the Abu Dhabi Dialogue to include labor-origin countries from Africa, such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, and participation by nongovernmental groups.

The joint statement follows the release of a report last week from Amnesty International on the treatment of political dissenters in the United Arab Emirates. That 80-page document, titled There is no freedom here”: Silencing dissent in the UAE, highlights individual cases demonstrating that “activists [are] routinely persecuted and subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment.”

Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.