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Challenges to corporate accountability in the Gulf: Tracking labour abuse in a climate of near impunity

18/12/19 - Isobel Archer, Project Assistant, Migrant Workers in Qatar & the UAE, BHRRC

Construction workers

For International Migrants Day 2019, Isobel Archer looks at the complex company structures and lack of transparency that contribute to rampant human rights abuses against migrant workers in the Gulf

The estimated 20 million migrant workers in the Gulf account for 10% of all migrants globally, one third of the Gulf’s total population, and up to 90% of the manual labour workforce. They also make significant contributions to the economic development of their host and home countries.

Yet they face abuse, discrimination and exploitation by unscrupulous employers facilitated by the kafala (sponsorship) system, as well as significant obstacles to accessing justice and remedy when abuses occur.  

Since 2016, the Resource Centre’s Migrant Workers in the Gulf project has tracked reports of labour abuse against migrant workers in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. To mark International Migrants’ Day, we are launching our Allegations Tracker of Abuses Against Migrant Workers in the Gulf.

We have tracked 103 cases of labour abuse, with most occurring in the UAE (39%) and Qatar (23%). They record abuses against at least 46,000 workers, although we know the real number of incidents of abuse and workers affected to be far higher due to under reporting. 

In the lead up to the FIFA World Cup in Doha in 2022, Qatar has faced increased international scrutiny over its treatment of migrant construction workers and introduced a number of legal reforms. Much more needs to be done to improve welfare protections for workers across the region and in all industries.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia may receive less media attention, but cases from these countries bear the same hallmarks of abuse. The millions of migrant workers in other Gulf countries struggling to work and live in dignity also deserve global attention.  

81% of cases of abuse we tracked involve migrant workers suffering from withheld, delayed or non-payment of wages. Before going public, workers often exhaust all other means of getting their dues: approaching their employers and embassies, and in some cases going on strike and taking their dispute to labour courts. Meanwhile, workers grow destitute and are dependent on charity.  

Employment practices such as charging of recruitment fees, or where employers fail to renew workers’ visas and keep passports, restrict workers’ freedom of movement. Families dependent on remittances are often impacted negatively, with workers facing financial challenges to returning home after taking out loans to cover migration costs. While some workers return heavily indebted, in the most egregious cases others return in body bags. 

Despite the prevalence of abuse against migrant workers in the Gulf, a lack of business transparency in the region has long plagued workers’ efforts to seek justice and accountability. Our Company Response Mechanism is consequently under-used in the region; we face unique challenges to identify and hold accountable companies responsible for abuses.

Between January 2016 and November 2019, specific companies were only named in 57% of publicly reported cases. We successfully contacted companies in 17 cases, yet only received four responses. Globally, our response rate hovers around the 73% mark, yet companies named in cases from the MENA region have a response rate of 53%.

Across the GCC countries this is even lower, averaging 35%. Among those companies headquartered locally, Gulf response rate is even lower at 23%; even international companies, often operating through local-subsidiaries or joint-ventures, only respond to 38% allegations. 

Most often, companies are simply not identified publicly by workers. This is understandable, given the very real risk to workers of reprisals including job loss, detention and deportation. In one case a worker disclosed his experience of withheld wages and passport to UN investigators visiting World Cup sites, yet the high-profile nature of their visit was not enough to protect him. He was sacked the following day, imprisoned and threatened with a fine when his visa was not renewed.  

Even when companies are named, transparency around company structures and business relationships is minimal. They often remain untraceable and uncontactable. While companies operating across Europe, for example, maintain an online web presence to comply with disclosure requirements, companies headquartered in the Gulf face no such requirements and sources such as business directories are unreliable.  

These issues are complicated by the restrictive environment facing human rights organisations and activists in a region where unionising is banned. Investigative journalism or human rights research is dangerous and nearly impossible. Press freedom is severely curtailed, while the repression of critics and perceived dissidents continues relentlessly.

Surveillance and restrictive cyber-law further limit the availability of independent information. Journalists in home countries provide invaluable additional information on abuses facing their nationals abroad but have little information or ability to research implicated companies. Information instead comes from local charities or embassies who refrain from naming companies. 

The Tracker makes clear that abuses against migrant workers remain rampant in a climate of impunity as companies largely continue to evade responsibility; the importance of accurate and detailed reporting to hold companies to account cannot be overstated.

Despite the challenges journalists face, we do know that increased transparency can spur companies to react to public pressure. We will continue to update the tracker with new allegations as they are reported, with a goal of providing as complete a public record of abuse as possible in this challenging region. 

The coming years will see the Gulf states play host to more and more sporting and cultural events beyond Expo 2020 Dubai and Qatar 2022. And with Saudi Arabia planning to diversify their economy beyond oil and into tourism, it is clear that companies can only continue to employ huge numbers of migrant workers to keep up with, in particular, construction demand.

Shining a light on the abuse facing these workers – along with the corporate perpetrators - is crucial to support workers, civil society organizations, unions and other advocates in their fight to hold unscrupulous employers to account.