Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Hannah Chartoff, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
To celebrate the 1990 passage of the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the United Nations declared December 18 International Migrants Day. While migrant laborers can play a critical role in development, they also are vulnerable to human rights abuses and violations of international labor standards.
Migration for work can benefit the workers’ home countries and the laborers themselves. A 2005 World Bank study showed that remittances—the portion of migrant workers’ pay sent back home—can lead to higher savings for their families, better access to health and education, increased macroeconomic stability and entrepreneurship, and reductions in poverty and social inequality in their home countries. In some circumstances, migration for work can also have an empowering effect on women: migration offers opportunities that may not be available to poor women at home.
But migrant labor has a dark side as well. Workers are often subject to abuse at the hands of their employers.
No region has attracted more attention for the mistreatment of migrant laborers in recent years than the Arab Gulf. As Qatar constructs sports stadiums to hold the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it has come under heavy scrutiny for the laborers’ working conditions. Increasingly, the United Arab Emirates have garnered similar attention: in September, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) called on the United Nations to investigate the mistreatment of laborers on a $27 billion project, which includes new Louvre and Guggenheim museums.
And the mistreatment of migrant laborers is not limited to male workers on building projects: female migrant workers often face physical and sexual abuse when employed as domestic laborers. A recent Human Rights Watch report documents female domestic workers’ experiences in the UAE, telling stories of excessive work, lack of rest, restricted communication with their loved ones, passport confiscation, forced confinement, and denial of adequate food and healthcare, among other horrors.
This exploitation of migrant workers in the UAE and other Gulf states is facilitated by the kafala sponsorship system, in which a laborer’s immigration status is directly tied to an individual employer for the period of the contract. In some cases, migrant workers can neither leave the country nor change employers without permission from their original sponsor, making it difficult to escape an abusive boss.
Home countries of migrant laborers have begun to take action in an attempt to prevent the mistreatment of their citizens. Both Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, have made it illegal to emigrate to work in the UAE and the Gulf, respectively. However, some workers still go, often under riskier conditions. The Philippines had taken a different approach, requiring minimum terms and conditions for workers going overseas. Yet often these conditions are disregarded when workers arrive in their host countries. In response, the Filipino government stopped approving visas for domestic work last October.
Though the UAE made some changes to migrant workers’ contracts, they continue to exclude migrants from protection under their labor law. In May, Qatar announced a plan to reform its system governing migrant workers, but few of the proposed measures have yet to be implemented.
Migrant labor can be a source of new opportunities for workers and lead to development and poverty reduction, yet in some circumstances, migrant workers are plagued by abuse and a system that strips them of their autonomy. More attention should be given to this issue, not only to protect the human rights of these laborers, but also to leverage fully the potential development benefits of a world that needs their talents.