The Gulf states should expand social reforms planned in the wake of the Arab Spring protests to include an overhaul of conditions for blue-collar migrants, the world’s largest trade union said.
Despite pledges to address criticisms of workers’ rights, the conditions for the GCC’s thousands of low-skilled migrants remains “appalling”, the International Trade Union Confederation said.
“It is abominable that it exists when the Gulf [states] believe they are fully paid-up members of the global community,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary at the ITUC. “The abuse of trade and union rights is extraordinary in some of the wealthiest nations in the world.
“The bulk of [citizens] want democratic rights and freedoms. But the bulk of the workforce across the GCC are migrant workers [that] are basically enslaved.”
Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are among the GCC states that have unveiled significant social spending plans and a host of reforms following a wave of political unrest in the Arab world.
Saudi has, for the first time, given women the right to vote and has pledged to spend some $134bn on projects such as low-cost housing and creating jobs.
Lobby groups such as ITUC have said they plan to capitalise on efforts by GCC states to host world events such as the Olympic Games and the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar to force nations to pay closer attention to the rights of expatriate workers.
Fifa had a taste of this tactic in November, when it was lobbied by trade unions objecting to the conditions of “modern slavery” experienced by blue-collar migrants in Qatar.
In a letter to soccer’s governing body, the ITUC asked that the gas-rich Gulf state be stripped of its hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup if conditions failed to improve
“We have already indicated to the Gulf states – and Qatar in particular – that this model of 21st century enslavement of labour can’t continue,” said Burrow.
“We have two ambitions: to organise workers and press government for… the right to collective agreement, beginning with a minimum wage and social protection.”
The Gulf plays host to millions of migrants, primarily from Asia, who account for the majority of blue-collar workers in the construction, domestic work, and service industries.
An estimated three million migrate each year, sending back an estimated $175bn in remittances annually, according to Human Rights Watch data.
The six GCC states employ around 15 million guest workers, according to World Bank figures. In Kuwait, there is approximately one migrant domestic worker for every two citizens.
Qatar this month vowed to ensure all contractors signed ahead of the 2022 World Cup adhered to international labour laws, in response to widespread criticism. Burrow also said that feeder countries needed to do more to ensure the welfare of their citizens when working in the GCC.
“Many countries are exporting their own citizens,” she said. “It doesn’t absent them from demanding human and trade unions for their own people. We wish countries would stand up for their own citizens.”