International rights and labor groups called Sunday for urgent action to protect migrant workers from abuse in Gulf countries.
Ahead of a meeting this week of Gulf and Asian labor ministers, 90 groups issued a statement saying millions of Asian and African workers are facing abuses including unpaid wages, confiscation of passports, physical violence and forced labor.
“Whether it’s the scale of abuse of domestic workers hidden from public view or the shocking death toll among construction workers, the plight of migrants in the Gulf demands urgent and profound reform,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Asian countries are meeting on November 26-27 for the third round of the so-called Abu Dhabi Dialogue on labor migration.
About 23 million foreigners, including at least 2.4 million domestic servants, live in the six-nation GCC that brings together Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
GCC countries have come under fire for the kafala system of sponsorship for migrant workers, which is used to varying extents across the Gulf.
It restricts most workers from moving to a new job before their contracts end unless they obtain their employer’s consent, trapping many workers in abusive situations, the statement said.
It called for comprehensive laws to protect migrant laborers and reforming the kafala system to allow workers to change employers without permission from their sponsors.
HRW was one of the signatories of the statement along with other groups including Amnesty International, the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Domestic Workers Federation.
On Tuesday, Amnesty accused the UAE, which is hosting a Formula One race this weekend, of repression it said is the “ugly reality” behind the glitz and glamor of the event.
In a report titled “There is no freedom here: silencing dissent in the UAE,” the human rights watchdog speaks of a “climate of fear” and the “extreme lengths” the authorities go to in order to stamp out opposition or calls for reform.
“Millions of spectators from across the world are expected to tune in to watch the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix this weekend – yet most of them will have little clue about the ugly reality of life for activists in the UAE,” said Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“Beneath the facade of glitz and glamor, a far more sinister side to the UAE has emerged showing the UAE as a deeply repressive state where activists critical of the government can be tossed in jail merely for posting a tweet,” she said.
Amnesty’s UAE report came a day after a report by Australian-based human rights group The Walk Free Foundation ranked Qatar in fourth place in a global ranking of countries where slavery is most prevalent.
The tiny Gulf state has come under scrutiny by rights groups over its treatment of migrant workers, most from Asia, who come to toil on construction sites, oil projects, or work as domestic help.
Early November, Amnesty International published a report titled, “No extra time: How Qatar is still failing on workers’ rights ahead of the World Cup.”
It said that “Qatar is still failing on workers’ rights ahead of the World Cup” and “has made only minimal progress on a number of plans it announced in May 2014” to tackle the reported exploitations.
The report highlighted the situation of migrant workers in the Gulf state, namely “delays in payments of migrants’ wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, poor living conditions and shocking details of forced labor.”
The oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have long cracked down on dissent and calls for democratic reform, drawing criticism from human rights groups.