Every year, an estimated three million people migrate to the Arabian Gulf, mostly from Asian countries, to pursue work. To many, the glittering shorelines and towering skyscrapers represent the prospects of a better life. These migrant workers are the construction laborers who built the tallest building in the world. They are the maids who care for the domestic needs of wealthy families. And they are the ones who keep the place looking shiny and new by sweeping the trash from the streets.
But even though they have been essential in building the cities that attract billions of dollars in investment, migrant workers in the wealthy Gulf countries remain invisible. Gulf states have liberalized in many ways socially and economically; however, labor standards generally remain dismal. Minimum wages are so low that they might as well be zero, working and living conditions are dreadful, and employers afford few, if any, rights to their migrant employees. If the Gulf states are serious about being modern nations admired by others around the world, it is time they get serious about ensuring labor standards for everyone in the country, regardless of citizenship or social class.
Migrant workers in the Gulf account for the majority of workers in unskilled industries such as construction, domestic work, and service. Around 15 million workers send home $175 billion dollars in remittances each year. The fact that these workers seek opportunities abroad to provide for their families when work is not available at home is no excuse for the horrible working conditions they experience. Workers are lured into unskilled jobs where the minimum wage is as low as $163.50 per month. Even in a skilled position, a worker could expect to only make double that amount. Many work 12 hours a day in 100-plus degree desert heat.
Pressure on the Gulf states has risen, and will likely continue to do so, in light of recent bids to host international institutions and events. Many rights groups have questioned whether the Gulf should be able to host high-profile international competitions like the World Cup and Olympics if these states deny rights and standards to workers.
Labor groups have recently launched a campaign, “No World Cup in Qatar without labour rights” in an effort to pressure FIFA to ensure that workers’ rights are protected for those enlisted to build Qatar’s nine stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. Sharron Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, “If they want to be part of the global community and the global economy they have to treat people with the dignity and respect of fundamental rights.”
Qatar is not alone in being criticized for poor labor standards. Earlier this year, artists pledged to boycott the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi if conditions and labor standards were not raised at the site. The outcry came in response to reports of poor conditions at the site, including unsafe working conditions and arbitrary withholding of workers’ wages. These are only a few of the many grievances workers face from UAE employers, who often mischaracterize the work being recruited for, confiscate workers’ passports, and hold them in long periods of debt to repay recruitment fees.
And in Saudi Arabia, migrant domestic workers have reported numerous cases of abuse at the hands of their employers. Beatings and sexual abuse occur behind closed doors in private homes, and the workers are afforded few to no avenues for redress in the system. Workers in Saudi Arabia, both in the domestic care and construction industries, have also fallen victim to harsh measures within the Saudi legal system. In one case, an Indonesian maid was beheaded for killing her employer, who she said was abusing her. In another, eight Bengali men were publicly beheaded for killing an Egyptian man. According to Amnesty International, migrant workers who are indicted often have no defense lawyer or interpreter for legal proceedings in Arabic.
Migrant laborers have built the buildings that now rise thousands of feet above the Arabian desert, have cared for the families that govern them, and have cleaned up after their tourists. It is past time that Gulf governments afford these workers the labor standards that humanity deserves.
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