Living as Commodities: Human and sex trafficking in the GCC

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) is pleased to announce its new report, Living as Commodities: Human and sex trafficking in the GCC . Please see the introduction below, and click here for the full report. 

All of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are highly dependent upon foreign labor, and thus have high proportions of migrant residents. Kuwait has a population of about 2.9 million, about two million of whom are migrant workers.[1] Over 1.8 of 3.6 million people living in Oman are foreign nationals, the majority of whom are migrant workers.[2] Migrant workers comprise over 90 percent of Qatar’s workforce.[3] There are almost eight million low-paid migrant workers in the UAE, comprising more than 90 percent of the private workforce.[4] Migrants make up over 77 percent of Bahrain’s workforce.[5] In Saudi Arabia, foreigners account for over 10.1 million of the total population of about 30 million.[6]

The need for migrant labor begets the possibility for human trafficking and forced labor in order to keep up with the high demand for workers. The definition of human trafficking as expressed in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children equates forced labor with human trafficking. It states:

“‘Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs…”[7]

The Protocol also states that a victim of any of these situations cannot be considered to have consented.[8]  This means that even workers who voluntarily travel to the Gulf can still be trafficked.

Many of these migrants come from South Asia, Africa, and East Asia with hopes of earning enough money to support their families back home. Male migrant workers in the GCC work in a variety of sectors including construction and manufacturing, while women often work as domestic help in personal homes. These men and women often face abuse and exploitation upon their arrivals in the Gulf. Recruitment agencies, which most migrant workers use to find positions abroad, often promise them jobs with attractive terms that do not exist in exchange for large sums of money.

Migrant workers often face physical and mental abuse at the hands of their employers. Many employers subject their workers to debt bondage and contract substitution. The workers realize too late, after they have already travelled to the GCC, that their employers have changed contracts and lowered their wages, ensuring that they cannot escape the cycle of debt. As their employers often confiscate their passports, most workers are unable to escape their harsh work and squalid living conditions. Many employers reduce their workers’ access to food, physically beat them, and force them to work long hours without breaks. Some also sexually abuse and rape their domestic workers.

There are few advantages to leaving one’s employer, deterring many workers from filing complaints or seeking help. Most workers do not have access to phones, money, or in-country contacts, making it difficult for them to flee. Some female domestic workers attempt to run away, but are instead further sex trafficked and forced into prostitution.

Even when workers successfully escape their abusive environments, there are very few effective legal options open to them. Conviction rates under anti-trafficking or forced labor laws are extremely low in all GCC countries, and speaking against one’s employer could prove to have negative consequences. Authorities will usually return runaway migrant workers to their employers, even if they had accused them of being abusive; in retaliation, many employers will treat their workers worse than before.

Many of these abuses are the results of the kafala system. The kafala system requires that employers sponsor their migrant workers in order to live and work in the region, enabling employers to exert significant control over their employees’ lives. While it manifests in different ways throughout the individual Gulf countries, it is present and abusive in all six. As the system ties migrant workers to their employers, it often increases their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

In addition to the continued use of the kafala system, the governments of the GCC members act to entrap and negatively impact migrant workers. While most Gulf countries have agreements with source countries in order foster cooperation against migrant abuse and human trafficking, they are not legally binding. Domestic legislation regarding labor practices and anti-trafficking measures is comprehensive throughout the region, however, authorities rarely enforce any of these laws.

This report will examine the abuses migrant workers face on a daily basis as well as the complicity of the GCC governments in human trafficking. In order to successfully combat human trafficking, officials in the GCC need to better enforce the laws it has in place, reform current legislation to better allow victims to take action against their employers, and repeal the abusive and exploitative kafala system.

[1] Human Rights Watch, “Concerns and Recommendations on Kuwait
Submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee in advance of its Pre-Sessional Review,”  (August 7, 2015).

[2] Gulf Labor Markets and Migration, “Demography, Migration, and the Labour Market in Oman,” 9 (2015).

[3] U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report: Qatar,” (2016).

[4] Friolan T. Malit, Jr. and Ali Al Youha, “Labor Migration in the United Arab Emirates: Challenges and Responses,” Migration Policy Institute, September 18, 2013.

[5] Human Rights Watch, For a Better Life: Migrant Worker Abuse in Bahrain and the Government Reform Agenda  (United States: Human Rights Watch, 2012), 2.

[6] Marwa Rashad and Reem Shamseddine, “In era of cheap oil, Saudi loses shine for foreign workers,” Reuters, March 23, 2016,

[7] United Nations, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime  (November 15, 2000).

[8] United Nations, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons