Many migrant workers, mainly from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the Middle East, travel to the Gulf states with the hopes of attaining jobs to provide for themselves and their families. They are drawn to these jobs by the promise of high wages, good working conditions, and the opportunity to better their lives. However, the reality of working abroad is very different from these initial expectations. While many migrants dedicate decades of their lives to their work and a country foreign to them, in return they are treated as outsiders and are exploited by their employers. They also often face racism and discrimination based on ethnicity, race, and gender. 

History of Migrant Workers

The Gulf states consist of Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are economically well-off but are reportedly notorious for being sites where workers are routinely abused and mistreated. Foreign workers make up a significant portion of the population of these states. In the UAE, for example, foreigners account for 8 million of the estimated national population of 9.1 million. Throughout all of the Gulf states, there are an estimated 23 million foreign workers overall. 

Migrant workers have worked in the Gulf states for decades. As the oil industry spiked in the region in the 1970s, the Gulf states hired many migrant workers for cheap, underpaid labour. Initially, workers were hired from Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, as well as from Asian countries. Currently, South Asian workers from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh make up the highest percentage of foreign workers.

Foreign workers often fill temporary blue-collar, service industry, or labour-intensive jobs in construction or domestic services. They contribute significantly to the economies of the countries they work in. According to Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, “Gulf countries are highly dependent on migrant workers in almost every major sector to help grow their economies.” Yet, the way they are treated does not reflect the extent of their contributions. Seeing as they are paid very little and most have to send what little money they do have back to home to their families, migrant workers in the Gulf and elsewhere often fall into poverty. Many workers live in shared rooms that house many others who are working similar jobs. 

The Kafala System

The Kafala system grants visas to foreign workers so they are able to work in the Gulf states. It is a visa-sponsorship system that binds workers to their employers, and it gives companies full control of workers’ employment and immigration statuses. Their employment contracts are also vague and provide little protection and job security. Further, workers’ passports are given to their employers, thus allowing their employers to dictate how long they work and when they can leave. Under the Kafala system, if workers leave their job before the contract expires, they could be subject to fines, prison, or deportation. Migrant workers are also forced to work long hours with no pay, are denied visa renewals, and are prevented from protesting or unionizing. It is reported that at least 41% of workers deal with abuses of this nature. 

The Kafala system has come under fire for the abuses workers endure. Many employers take advantage of the power they have over their workers and often treat them unjustly. Calls have been made to reform the system in order to better protect workers and improve their working conditions. 

Problems Workers Endure

Since 2016, 497 public allegations have been made against companies that hire and exploit foreign workers, with at least 132,000 workers affected in the documented cases. Workers commonly report payment delays, withheld salaries, or payments not being issued to them at all. These types of reports have been made by 72% of workers. 

Migrant workers are often treated as lower-class citizens with little respect by locals and are regularly subjected to racism and racially-motivated discrimination. Hiring help is seen as a status symbol of the rich in the Gulf states; the wealthy enjoy cheap labour at the expense of other individuals’ lives. Infamously, Kuwaiti actress, Hayat Al-Fahad, said that “expatriates should be left in the desert or deported as they are putting pressure on Kuwait’s medical sector.” That Al-Fahad felt it was acceptable to make such a derogatory and disturbing comment shows just how normalized racism and abuse towards migrant workers really is in many Gulf societies.

COVID-19 Escalating the Situation

While the problems migrant workers face have been prevalent for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly heightened and illuminated these problems. Since the pandemic, there have been reported increases in workers being subject to wage theft, intimidation, and safety and health breaches. Workers also have restricted access to preventative healthcare and lack the ability to get treatment. Instead, they are forced to live in overcrowded rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens which are often unsanitary and inadequate, greatly putting their health and safety at risk during a global pandemic. Employers are not doing enough to ensure their workers are living in safe and adequate spaces.

It is the hope of advocates that the Kafala system will be reformed or even abolished to ensure the better treatment of hard-working foreign workers. Some countries have already started working towards reform, including Qatar, which has implemented new health and safety regulations to protect workers on construction sites and is working to ensure that companies comply with these regulations. Other countries in the Gulf region need to follow suit to protect the rights and dignity of foreign workers.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Tatheer Tariq

Tatheer is a Pakistani-Canadian political science student at the University of Calgary. Her main research interests include social justice, human rights, politics and diplomacy, mainly focused in the Global...