We are aware of the struggle for democracy in the Arab states but we should also recognise another class struggle going on for rights that is taking place in the region which is conveniently often ignored.
The population in the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain was 4 million in 1950 and increased to 40 million in 2006, making this population jump one of the highest in the world. The major influx of foreign workers into the Middle East began following the oil price boom in 1973. The GCC had a combined workforce of only 1.36 million. The need for labour meant an influx of skilled and unskilled workers from other Arab countries (principally Egyptians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Sudanese) and from Asia (mainly Pakistanis and Indians) almost doubled the populations of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait within the decade between 1975 and 1985. By the early 1980s, an increasing number of migrants were recruited from Southeast Asia. Until the end of the 1980s, these comprised over half of the Asian migration to the Middle East. The ILO estimates that there are 15 million migrant workers in the six-nation GCC states, making up about 40 per cent of the total population. Foreigners form a majority of the population in all of the GCC states apart from Saudi Arabia and above 90 percent in the UAE and Qatar, according to the ILO. The United Nations provides demographics for the populations in these states in their Migrant Workers in the Middle East research report:
“Towards the end of 2004, the year of the latest relatively reliable statistics, the GCC states were inhabited by 12.5 million foreigners, who constituted 37 percent of the total population. In Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, foreigners constituted a majority; in the United Arab Emirates they accounted for over 80 percent of population. Only Oman and Saudi Arabia managed to maintain a relatively low proportion of foreigners: about 20 and 27 percent respectively.”
Typically, temporary foreign contract employees are the preferred migrants to Middle Eastern countries, as there are no expectations of permanent settlement or citizenship rights. Most countries do not cover such employees under local labour laws, and no UN or ILO conventions that offer national or international protection are in force or ratified, particularly for unskilled labourers. However, despite the temporary nature of such labour contracts, there remains a permanent pool of migrant workers in the receiving countries. It is argued that temporary foreign workers are not formally “free” in receiving countries, because they cannot access the local labour markets in the receiving country without express permission from the state. In other words, temporary employees are normally legally attached to a sponsor/employer until the completion of an employment contract, at which time the employee is required to either receive a renewal of a work permit or leave the country. Temporary workers who do leave their employers/sponsors (or attempt to run away) are rendered illegal and are subject to arrest and deportation. Periodic “crackdowns” are undertaken to find and deport these illegal foreign residents. In most countries, many people in this category continue to live and work, although precise numbers are unknown.
It is difficult to imagine that slavery exists so openly in today’s world, but for migrant workers indentured servitude is the reality of their daily life. These workers usually come from uneducated and impoverished backgrounds from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia or the Philippines. Yet as they leave their spouse, children, and the life they know to start this new one in a foreign country, they are quick to discover upon arrival at the airport the complete dependence they will have on their new employer as they have no choice but to hand in their passport along with their human rights.
This sponsoring system that involves withholding a worker’s passport is known as “kafala”, a routine practice in the GCC states to regulate the residency and employment of foreign workers. This system signifies the hold that an employer will have on these foreign workers. A migrant worker’s salary, living accommodations, meals, ability to work elsewhere, and even their ability to return home are at the mercy of their employer. In Kuwait, immigration regulations allow for criminal charges against workers who leave their jobs, while in Saudi Arabia and Qatar workers must have their employers' permission to get exit visas to leave the country. In addition, labour laws in these states are usually in favor of protecting the employer who is a citizen of the state rather than the foreigner who is not, which leaves the treatment and well being of these workers to the will of the employer. Qatar's economy and entire way of life depends heavily on the efforts of foreign workers. According to 2009 figures from the Qatar Statistics Authority, an astonishing 94 percent of the workforce is non-Qatari. Most of these non-Qatari workers originate from developing countries such as Nepal, India and the Philippines. Of the almost 1.2 million documented migrant workers currently employed in Qatar some 20,000 migrant workers in 2007 simply running away from their employers. The status of migrant workers under Qatari legislation, including both labour and human rights law is not dissimilar to the status afforded illegal aliens. Labour laws offer little protection because of lax enforcement, while foreign embassies of developing countries do little besides offer refuge to their nationals, for fear of jeopardizing the flow of remittances workers send to their families back home. Labour laws in these states are usually in favor of protecting the employer who is a citizen of the state rather than the foreigner who is not, which leaves the treatment and well being of these workers to the will of the employer. These countries also exclude domestic workers from the labour laws, leaving them open to abuse with few avenues for redress. Organisers of strikes are summarily deported.