DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Human Rights Watch released a set of guidelines Tuesday that it says construction companies in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states should follow to ensure basic rights for migrant workers.
The New York-based rights group's latest recommendations shift the focus toward employers and are aimed at tackling some of the biggest abuses facing millions of low-paid laborers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
They include ensuring that contractors and sub-contractors pay all recruiting fees, provide workers with places to keep their passports, provide decent accommodation, abide by requirements for maximum working hours and overtime pay, and pay workers their full wages on time.
The group also urged companies to appoint outside monitors to ensure workers are receiving basic labor protections in practice, not just on paper.
"In the face of rampant abuse and exploitation of worker's rights in GCC countries, construction firms need to step up to protect their workforce," said the group's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
Migrant workers in the Gulf are employed under a sponsorship system known as kafala that effectively ties laborers to their employer and makes it difficult for workers to change jobs without getting their boss' approval. Activists say the system leaves workers open to abuse.
It is common for workers to pay hefty fees to recruiters back home to secure employment, which for many turns out to be different than what was promised once they arrive. Human Rights Watch says recruiting costs can run as high as $3,000 and that it can take laborers up to three years to pay those fees back.
Many laborers in the Gulf construction industry come from South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Gulf states have taken some steps to improve working conditions. Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest economy, this year implemented a number of amendments to its labor law that imposed or increased penalties for violations. The Emirates is putting in place reforms starting Jan. 1 aimed at tightening oversight of employment agreements.
Qatar, which has faced intense scrutiny over its labor practices since winning the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, has made changes to its labor policies too. Its government communications office acknowledged this week that labor reform "is still a work in progress."
Activists say more needs to be done.
The International Trade Union Confederation challenged Qatar to do away with the kafala system and implement other reforms in a new report this week. It estimated companies doing business in Qatar will generate $15 billion in infrastructure for the World Cup by relying on migrant workers it called "modern day slaves."
Qatar hit back at the ITUC report, particularly its claim that some 7,000 migrant workers will die by the time the games begin. It reiterated its position that no workers have died on World Cup sites, saying the ITUC's claim "is groundless and represents a deliberate distortion of the facts."
Human Rights Watch guidelines: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/2015.12.21.gcc_brochure_dec_2015.pdf
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck