Better protection for migrant workers in the Middle East

Article, 18.12.2014

The rights of migrants are often insufficiently protected. For this reason, the SDC has been running projects in the migrants' countries of origin and destination for a number of years. On the occasion of International Migrants Day on 18 December, Pascal Raess, SDC programme officer in Jordan, explains the SDC's commitment to migrant workers in the Middle East.

Construction workers take a break on the terrace of a building in Dubai. In the background you can see many high-rise buildings in the mist and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. © Piotr Zarobkiewicz
Construction workers in Dubai during a break. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, rises in the background. © Piotr Zarobkiewicz

Many people emigrate to other countries in search of work and higher wages. Labour migration makes a significant contribution to the development of the migrants' countries of origin, for example in South and East Asia. Migrant workers send a large proportion of their wages to their families back home. In some countries these remittances are huge. In Sri Lanka, for example, they account for most of the country's foreign currency holdings.

Most migrants find work in the Gulf States (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Lebanon, Jordan or Malaysia. The chances of finding temporary work in these countries are high: Qatar, for example, is currently preparing for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and needs a large number of workers for numerous major construction sites. But the employment conditions for such temporary jobs afford workers little or no legal protection. Low-skilled migrants in particular are vulnerable to exploitative working conditions and discrimination. Switzerland decided to name migration and development as one of its global priorities for development cooperation (defined in the 2013-2016 South Dispatch).

Since 2010, the SDC has been working both in the migrants' countries of origin in South and South East Asia and in their countries of destination in the Middle East. Switzerland is one of the very few bilateral donors active in the area of migration and development in the Middle East.  Pascal Raess, SDC programme officer in Amman, explains the exact nature of the SDC's activities.

What is the situation of migrant workers from South Asia who are working in the Middle East, and why is Switzerland trying to protect them?

The Middle East Region is a global hub of labour migration which attracts millions of low-skilled workers, both women and men, mainly from South and South East Asia. Women make up around one third.

The situation in the migrants’ countries of origin is characterised by a lack of job opportunities and a pressing need to escape poverty or unemployment, violence or abuse, in particular for women. These are powerful motivating factors for migrating to the Middle East. Although people considering migration are often well informed about the difficult working and living conditions they will experience in the Middle East, they still decide to migrate.

Given the high number of vulnerable migrants migrating to the Middle East and the harsh working and living conditions faced by low skilled workers in particular, a Swiss field presence in this global migration hub was necessary. This presence is also key to establishing partnerships and contacts with national counterparts, civil society organisations and various other partners.

The SDC is also present in countries of origin such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. This enables Switzerland to develop and implement a comprehensive and coherent approach along the entire migration corridor. Furthermore, the network of Swiss embassies can also be mobilised. This is important in particular in the Gulf countries, where the SDC has not traditionally had a field presence.

What difficulties do migrant workers face in their countries of destination?

The main violations reported by workers include the confiscation of identity papers, contract substitution (meaning that the contract signed before leaving the country of origin and the contract signed on arrival in the Middle East are different, generally to the detriment of the worker), or deception concerning the nature of the job and working and living conditions. Workers also reported non-payment and retention of wages, excessive working hours and forced overtime, limited freedom of movement and communication, verbal, physical or sexual abuse, and inadequate access to justice, including compensation.

Needless to say, all these factors are compounded by the differences of cultural and religious contexts, language barriers, and the absence of a social network and often a situation of over-indebtedness by the migrant worker, making it impossible to return to his/her country before paying back the debt. As a consequence, the migrant worker often sees no alternative but to accept the conditions in the Middle East.

What exactly is the SDC doing to support them?

The SDC works with various partners such as governments, civil society organisations, universities and national human rights organisations. One concrete example is the SDC’s cooperation with civil society organisations in Jordan. The SDC supports the training of lawyers to familiarise them with international legal frameworks and how they can be applied in Jordan. The aim of this training is to strengthen innovative case law, progressively leading to better implementation of the legislation and protection of the labour rights of migrant workers.

In a special economic zone that produces goods for export in the garment sector, the SDC launched a legal services programme to respond to requests for legal assistance from migrants originating from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Myanmar who are often afraid to enter legal proceedings in Jordan.

What is the biggest challenge of your work? Can you name a recent achievement that has been particularly gratifying?

In recent decades, the Middle East region has been confronted with enormous refugee movements. The massive number of refugees has had and continues to have a significant impact on the local community and labour market. This puts other social groups, including vulnerable members of the host communities, other migrant workers and the refugees at risk.

Switzerland achieved a very positive result with the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the National Human Rights Committee in Qatar in the summer of 2014. This cooperation between relevant actors is timely, as it will allow close cooperation to ensure better social protection of labour migrants during the crucial years leading up to the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Further information

Links

SDC: Economic migration

https://www.eda.admin.ch/deza/en/home/themen/migration/arbeitsmigration.html

SDC: More rights and protection for migrant workers in South Asia and the Middle East

https://www.eda.admin.ch/deza/en/home/aktuell/news-medienmitteilungenartikelundreden.html/deza/en/meta/news/2013/10/16/rechte-schutz-arbeitsmigranten

Documents

Flyer Migration and Development – a SDC Global Programme

https://www.eda.admin.ch/content/dam/deza/en/documents/Themes/resource_en_229271.pdf