18 December 2017 – The six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman – rely heavily on migrant labor and are noted for widespread and systematic migrant rights abuses. These violations largely stem from the GCC-wide use of the kafala system of labor sponsorship. On International Migrants Day, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) reiterates our longstanding calls for the abolition of the kafala system and for effective protections for migrant rights across the GCC.

All of the GCC states have significant migrant populations. Across the GCC as a whole, there are an estimated 25 million migrants, accounting for 70 percent of the area’s total workforce, and almost half of its total population. In Saudi Arabia, migrants make up more than 30 percent of the population and over 40 percent in Oman. In Bahrain, expatriates make up just over half of the population, but as much as 80 percent of the workforce. In Kuwait, migrants constitute two-thirds of the population. The UAE and Qatar have the highest proportions. In the UAE, migrants make up almost 88 percent of the population, while in Qatar, migrants 90 percent of the workforce.

Migrant workers in the GCC face widespread and systematic human rights violations stemming largely from the kafala system of labor sponsorship. The kafala system grants sponsors “a set of legal abilities to control workers: without the employer’s permission, workers cannot change jobs, quit jobs, or leave the country.” All six of the GCC states maintain some form of the sponsorship system, and though there are differences between how each state implements the system, they share three key restrictions that limit “whether and when workers can change jobs without their employer’s permission; workers’ ability to quit jobs without a sponsor’s permission; and workers’ ability to leave the country without a sponsor’s permission.”

Many employers use these excessive restrictions to exploit or otherwise abuse migrant workers. Employers subject their employees to debt bondage, contract substitution, and non-payment of wages. Migrant workers often have their passports confiscated, and find themselves forced to live and work in squalid and unsafe environments. Largely confined within the private sphere, female domestic migrant workers may face sexual harassment and violence. However, the kafala system ensures that workers cannot leave their jobs or go to the authorities for assistance. With no recourse to justice or compensation, many workers are forced to return to their home countries despite enduring months of unpaid wages. Others are subjected to further rights violations like human and sex trafficking.

Some of the GCC countries like Bahrain and Qatar have recently announced possible new reforms to the sponsorship system – including the “Flexi Permit” program and a new residency law, respectively – but it is unclear if these proposals will be fully and successfully implemented. In the meantime, Bahraini authorities have continued to report thousands of arrests for offenses stemming from the sponsorship system like “escape from sponsor,” while Qatar faces consistent allegations of severe migrant labor abuses ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

“The abusive treatment of migrants across the GCC is unacceptable. They are subjected to horrendous work environments, including extreme heat, long hours, and unsafe conditions, while they are often forced to live in squalid and unsanitary labor camps. Migrant workers, and particularly domestic workers, are also at an especially high risk of physical and sexual assault from their employers,” states Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “The GCC states have claimed again and again that they would reform this broken system, but there’s been little progress. Real action is long overdue. On International Migrants Rights Day, we call on them to uphold these stated commitments and abolish abusive kafala practices once and for all.”

ADHRB calls on the governments of the GCC to abolish in law and in practice the kafala system and ensure that the rights of migrants are protected. The GCC states must guarantee that abusive employers are held accountable and that migrant workers are able to seek justice and compensation for any violations of their rights. Until such reforms are truly implemented and enforced, migrant rights violations will remain widespread and systematic across the Gulf.