DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – An annual midday work ban goes into effect this month across much of the Arabian Peninsula to protect construction workers and outdoor labourers from the risks of direct sunlight and extremely high temperatures during the hottest summer months.
The ban, which stands out as one of the most strictly enforced laws aimed at protecting migrant workers in Gulf Arab countries, sheds light on the often difficult working conditions for millions of expatriate labourers who make up the bulk of the workforce here. They provide the manpower to build high-rises, shopping malls, highways and other mega-construction projects sweeping through the region.
Contractors and companies caught violating the ban are fined thousands of dollars and face temporary suspension. Labor Ministry inspectors in the various countries make tens of thousands of unannounced visits to sites to ensure the ban is enforced. The rules are in their tenth year in the United Arab Emirates, and have been around for several years in other Arab countries in the Persian Gulf.
The ban, which lasts between two to three months, went into effect June 1 in Kuwait and Oman, June 15 in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, while Bahrain and Saudi Arabia start it July 1. The longest work break is five hours in Qatar, while the shortest duration is 2.5 hours in the UAE.
At an International Labor Organization meeting in Geneva last week, delegates considered a treaty that requires governments to take measures to better protect workers, in particular migrant labourers, from fraudulent and abusive recruitment. Despite initiatives like the midday work ban, Gulf countries resisted voting in support of the new international standards to prevent forced labour.
An overwhelming 437 delegates supported the protocol, but among the 27 that abstained from the vote were the energy-rich Gulf nations of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The ILO says forced labour generates $150 billion in illegal profits annually, and that $8.5 billion of that is from the Middle East. The highest amount, more than $50 billion, was in the Asia-Pacific region.
The “kafala” or sponsorship system for migrant workers is among the most controversial in the Gulf. It ties their legal status to a sponsoring employer, and can require an employer’s written permission before a worker changes jobs or leaves the country. Qatar has been under extra international scrutiny due to its stringent kafala system as it prepares construction projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf that allows migrant workers to join trade unions. It also allows migrant workers the right to change jobs while in the country.
However, the executive director at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, Husain Abdulla, said the kafala law is rarely implemented and employers find ways to punish workers who want to quit by withholding their salaries and passports.
“One thing Gulf countries are good at passing is legislation … however, in implementing those laws — which look very good on paper, look humanitarian, reasonable and up to international standards — we see little to basically nothing,” he said.
The non-profit organization visited labour camps in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the past six months and released a report Tuesday entitled “Slaving Away: Migrant Labor Exploitation and Human Trafficking in the Gulf.”
Most migrant workers come from poor villages and towns in Yemen, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. They leave their families for years in search of low-wage work as construction workers, drivers, cleaners and domestic help. They send tens of billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries annually and are allowed to return for a visit once every few years.
Domestic workers in the Gulf, who hail largely from the Philippines and the Horn of Africa, are also not afforded adequate legal protections, according to rights groups. Many work as live-in maids seven days a week and are exposed to physical and sexual abuse. The UAE recently drafted a law that would guarantee its 750,000 domestic workers one day off per week, their salaries paid in cash every month and a written contract from their employer.
Abdulla said the current situation of migrant workers in the Gulf amounts to “modern day slavery”.
“The idea is to put fear in these migrant workers. No one speaks up and everyone works as a robot,” he said. “The migrant workers have built these countries and for them to be treated this way is just obscene.”
Associated Press writers Fay Abdulgasim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.