Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Article in Arabian Business: US urges GCC states to scrap sponsorship system

Gulf countries must scrap their sponsorship system for migrant workers that leaves labourers and domestic workers exposed to human trafficking and forced labour, the US State Department reported on Monday.

In a 373-page report, the department said that employers in the Gulf states exploit the widely used ‘kafala’ system to abuse workers and named Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as the region’s worst offenders.

Both were described by the department as a “destination country for men and women subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labour.”

The two countries were ranked in Tier 3, the lowest possible category; potentially leaving the pair open to US sanctions of non-humanitarian aid.

“These countries consistently fall at the bottom of the list when compared to others around the world,” said Nisha Varia of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“It is disappointing that governments across the Middle East have been slow to change the kafala system when it is so easily abused.”

Qatar and Lebanon were both placed on the Tier 2 watchlist, the report’s second lowest ranking. The UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Egypt were each assigned a Tier 2 rating, indicating they have made significant efforts to tackle human trafficking.

Millions of migrants, primarily from Asia and Africa, have short-term employment contracts for blue-collar jobs in the construction, domestic work, and service industries across the Middle East.

Under the ‘kafala’ system, nationals and companies can hire migrant workers who are dependent on their employers for food and shelter.

Many workers complain that agencies or employers confiscate their passports, do not pay them regularly or deduct housing or health costs from their pay.

A number of Arab states, including the UAE and Jordan, have signed up to anti-trafficking legislation. Saudi Arabia has operated a shelter for female domestic workers since 1997, while Kuwait has maintained a shelter facility since 2007.

However, other countries, including Lebanon and Kuwait, have yet to adopt anti-trafficking legislation, Many Arab countries retain immigration laws that critics claim penalise rather than protect migrant workers.

“For efforts to end forced labour and human trafficking to be successful, governments in the Middle East should reform the current visa sponsorship system,” said Varia.

“When employers have near-total control over migrants’ ability to change jobs, and sometimes to leave the country, workers can get trapped in exploitative situations in which they are forced to work without wages, get beaten, or face other abuses.”

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