Migrant workers in the Gulf region have been found to be amongst the most oppressed, with abuses spiking during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, which tracked public allegations made against companies reportedly, migrant workers in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states suffer from a variety of factors including the loss of their jobs on a grand scale, the theft of their wages, poor and cramped living conditions, the lack of sufficient access to food, and numerous health and safety violations at work.
In a report published to mark the United Nations' International Migrants Day, the organisation said cases of abuse increased sharply between the months of April and December this year in comparison with the same period in 2019, with 64 reports shooting up to 226, marking a 350 per cent increase.
The increases were seen most in the areas of wage theft which rose from 60 to 158 (260 per cent), health and safety violations which suffered increased from 13 cases to 90 (690 per cent), complaints of living conditions rose from 15 to 74 (490 per cent), and the lack of sufficient access to food increased from 30 to 74 (250 per cent).
At least 95,400 workers have been impacted since January 2016, it added, the majority of whom hail from counties in the Indian subcontinent and East Africa.
A report published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre three months ago, showed that between the months of April and August alone 80 cases of abuse of workers were reported. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) came in first place with 32 reports, Qatar second with 24, followed by seven in Bahrain, six in Oman, six in Saudi Arabia and five in Kuwait.
The Gulf states have long had an infamous reputation for their treatment of foreign workers who make up much of their populations, with them not being able to gain citizenship or permanent residence in the GCC countries in which they work. They are also obliged to be under the 'kafala' or sponsorship system, in which companies or employers serve as the workers' sponsor.
Under that system, migrant workers were forced to gain permission and approval from their employers to travel, obtain loans and access other services within the country. Many of the workers are reported to have been abused and mistreated due to the kafala system, with GCC states repeatedly being urged to reform their labour laws and abolish the system.
This year, Saudi Arabia announced that it is considering plans to abolish the kafala system as part of efforts to reach its national Vision 2030. The endeavour would, however, excluded five professions. Qatar has also announced reforms to its labour laws, although even those remain limited to raising the minimum wage and scrapping the requirement for the employer's permission to change jobs.
This year the ongoing coronavirus pandemic proved to be a major obstacle to migrant workers' rights, and was cited by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre as a primary reason for the suppression and dire situation of the migrants in the Gulf since April.
Since the respiratory virus caused havoc around the globe and the Gulf states were particularly strict in the enforcement of their lockdowns, migrant workers further suffered by losing their jobs and sometimes being stranded in the countries where they work with no salaries. This was seen in September when stranded Nepalese expats in Saudi protested, demanding they be repatriated.
To make matters worse for the foreign workers, Saudi and Kuwaiti authorities have been implementing a drive to hire more of their own nationals at the expense of the jobs that migrant workers have traditionally held. As part of its Vision 2030, it was predicted that around 1.2 million expat workers would be set to leave the kingdom this year due to the job losses brought about by the pandemic.
It is not only foreign workers who have suffered in the GCC, migrants have also been persecuted, with Saudi Arabia found to hold African migrants in "hellish" detention centres for deportation amid the pandemic. It was reported that the number of these detained migrants, who have allegedly also been tortured and beaten, amount to around at least 16,000.
They have also claimed Saudi authorities have implemented no measures to protect them from COVID-19, risking their health and safety within the cramped camps.