The rights abuse that migrant workers face in the Gulf is a classic case of collective action failure.
No one can deny the benefits of urban development and modernization, which can lift people out of poverty, create affordable housing and inspire flourishing arts and cultural scenes. Ambitious construction projects can create thousands of jobs, and often are sources of national pride.
But in the modern global economy, where tasks are highly specialized and goods and services seem to emerge from nothingness at the terminus of complex supply chains, we often forget those who actually do the building.
The migrant workers who are increasingly taking up construction work far from home are generally grateful to have the opportunity to earn higher wages than they otherwise might. But businesses and governments alike must ensure that these workers, like others contributing to long and sometimes convoluted supply chains, are adequately protected.
For decades, labor rights advocates have attempted to push for a set of international legal norms that would give migrant workers the same labor rights as workers who are citizens of their countries of employment. Due largely to political dynamics in countries that receive migrant workers, however, they have been mostly unsuccessful in achieving consensus on this front.
In recent years, advocacy groups and the media have highlighted the situation of migrant construction workers in Arab Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. As these nations continue to draw on oil and natural gas revenues to develop at a furious pace, and as plans for Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and for the UAE to host Expo 2020 ramp up, hundreds of thousands of construction workers continue to stream into the region. These migrants travel to the Middle East in search of marginally improved economic possibilities. Most come from South Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where widespread unemployment or conflict severely limits their opportunities.
The case of migrant construction workers in the Gulf is illustrative of broader challenges related to global migrant labor. The serious problems faced by migrant construction workers there are well-documented, including the payment of burdensome recruitment fees, late or nonpayment of wages, substandard housing, passport confiscation and lack of access to legal remedy. Many workers have even lost their lives due to unsafe site conditions or inadequate training procedures.
Critics of this system have recommended a series of measures Gulf governments should take to alleviate these hardships, including legal reform of the kafala (sponsorship) system, more robust enforcement of existing protective provisions and the mandating of specific practices by corporations and recruitment agencies operating there.
For a variety of reasons, however, Gulf governments have to date been slow or uneven in enacting meaningful policy shifts. For example, only some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have moved to ensure electronic wage payments to workers. And while Bahrain and the UAE have taken steps to permit workers to change employers after a specified time period, Qatar has yet to implement this change. Most importantly, no Gulf country has yet demonstrated an adequate commitment to enforcing its own laws against late or nonpayment of wages, passport confiscation or substandard housing, or has meaningfully eased barriers to justice for workers with grievances.
Opportunity to Promote Labor Rights
Businesses with interests in these construction projects also have an important role to pay in helping to address these challenges.
Some of these businesses have already publicly expressed a desire to improve conditions for workers, but their success in doing so has been uneven at best.
One reason for the lack of progress is the absence of well-defined rules for the recruitment of construction workers with clear operational boundaries. Corporations source and subcontract so often and with such vigor that business leaders often genuinely don’t know who makes their own companies’ products or does their construction work. This reality has spurred the creation of multiple initiatives aimed at improving supply chain transparency and responsibility.
In many ways, the current situation is a classic case of collective action failure. No one stakeholder wants to take initiative unless others also commit to taking the plunge. In the case of the Gulf, the cultural, sports and academic institutions that sponsor some of these projects—often based in developed countries—claim that they have no authority over GCC policies. Contractors, in turn, often note that they cannot reasonably be expected to police all subcontractors to which they are increasingly farming out work. Subcontractors, for their part, complain they are often not paid on time by principal contractors, making it difficult for them to pay their workers on time and in full, or to provide adequate living accommodations.
The governments of the workers’ countries of origin, which benefit from the economic boost provided by remittances, have minimal political leverage over the governments of the Gulf countries hosting their workers. But they also do very little to crack down on illegal or unscrupulous recruitment agencies within their own borders that compel workers to pay onerous fees. This process often leaves workers heavily indebted even prior to embarking on their journeys.
Of course, workers themselves sit at the bottom of this very complicated and heavy chain, and bear the brunt of its cost with little recourse.
The complexity of this business and political landscape means that any comprehensive solution to the crisis will ultimately require multi-stakeholder cooperation, and a sharing of moral—and financial—responsibility. This is a major challenge that will not be easily accomplished. But it can be accomplished.
Organizations that commission or sponsor large projects can insist—in the form of contractual conditions for their cooperation—that GCC governments institute and implement stronger measures. Contractors can likewise refuse to partner with subcontractors that fail to live up to high labor standards. These construction firms can work cooperatively to ensure that they do not undercut one another in this regard. And the governments of countries sending workers can, at the very least, crack down on unscrupulous recruitment agencies within their own borders, clearing the field for ethical recruiters who play by the rules.
Construction firms should recognize that working with ethical recruiters, ensuring on time and in-full payment to workers and providing adequate safety and accommodation provisions are not only the right things to do—they’re good business. These steps minimize reputational and legal risks, and can encourage long-term and more stable business relationships with their suppliers.
In today’s increasingly interconnected but unequal world, economic migration can serve an important equalizing function. Wages earned abroad and sent home by migrant workers can be transformative for affected families, villages and even entire countries. And while the free movement of workers and their wages across borders is no substitute for long-term economic development in impoverished regions, most labor and human rights advocates would argue for continued migration through less restrictive border crossing policies.
Indeed, as globalization continues to define economic and labor trends, the faces behind the glitz and glamor of urban development and renewal are increasingly those of migrants. But because of their transitory status, these workers are often vulnerable to abuse in their destination countries.
While the governments of countries that send and host these migrant construction workers—including GCC and South Asian countries—can and should take action to reform recruitment and employment practices, workers must not be held hostage to their present inaction.
Businesses should urge governments to live up to their obligations. But until that happens, they also can take important and immediate steps of their own to improve the situation for workers—steps that are in line with their obligations to shareholders. Most importantly, if successful, these steps will be a boon to business and will ultimately inspire Gulf and other governments to enshrine best practices in their legal and regulatory systems.
The major practical obstacle to improving the lives of migrant construction workers is the multi-layered nature of business interests in these projects. That is why the cultural and academic institutions, contractors, subcontractors and recruitment firms which are—understandably—looking to turn a fair profit, need to work collectively to develop industry standards aimed at addressing current human rights challenges.
Just as consumers, investors and businesses are becoming increasingly attuned to the human rights of workers who produce the food they eat and clothing they wear, those who benefit from urban growth booms must take steps to ensure that the people who construct our skylines are adequately protected. The results would be extraordinary and inspiring, and workers cannot afford to wait any longer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.