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OPINION: How the pandemic escalated migrant worker wage theft in the Gulf

by William Gois
Thursday, 9 December 2021 13:46 GMT

Foreign workers are seen at a construction site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 13, 2006. The United Arab Emirates should crack down on employers abusing the rights of migrant workers who are key to the Gulf Arab state's construction boom, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It would take a migrant worker four days to pay for a Big Mac, and it would take even longer when their wages are stolen.

Picture yourself striving tirelessly towards a better life, only to be robbed of your earnings during a financially devastating pandemic. Your family is robbed too – dependent on your income for subsistence, they now struggle to survive.

This may sound unlikely, but it’s the grim reality of many low-wage migrant workers in the Arab Gulf, as Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), a civil society organisation advocating for migrant worker rights, stipulates in its report, ‘Crying out for Justice: Wage Theft Against Migrant Workers During COVID-19’.

While the act of wage theft or denying workers their dues has long since existed, the pandemic has witnessed a radical escalation in this practice. Employers and recruiters, sometimes under financial duress, simply refuse to pay workers who have continued to toil during an unrelenting pandemic, and this must stop.

In the report, a domestic worker by the alias ‘Keshini’, describes being sold as a commodity by as many as three recruitment agents. To make matters worse, her agents denied her compensation. “I went to Dubai as a domestic worker [and] my agent sold me to three others. They sent me to several houses for domestic work and without pay.... when I fought with them, they locked me in a room and subjected me to harassment.”

So, what exactly is “wage theft” and how do we stop employers and recruiters from perpetuating this heinous practice? According to the MFA, wage theft is an umbrella term which comprises the non-payment of dues owed to workers, including but not limited to their salaries, overtime pay, paid sick leave, health insurance and end-of-service entitlements.

MFA reports that workers are persistently paid below the minimum wage – an issue that is aggravated by the dearth of sufficient minimum wage laws in each of these states (with the exception of Qatar which has attempted new reforms).

This points to the larger systemic inequalities entrenched in the “Kafala” sponsorship system, a group of legal and policy measures in each of the six GCC states (which links each worker to a “kafeel” or sponsor).

This set of rules institutionalises the employer-worker power imbalance, further exacerbated by the severe restrictions on worker unionisation across the GCC.

Rishan’s story, also documented in the MFA report, speaks to these larger structural inequalities. Rishan, an Indian national who worked in Saudi construction sector, was consistently paid below Saudi’s minimum monthly wage of SAR 4,000 ($1,066.20).

Aside from wage theft being drastically exacerbated during the pandemic, MFA’s investigation uncovered a number of key issues.

Companies that were economically hurting from the pandemic hastily terminated worker contracts and sent employees home without the legally mandated prior written notice, or proper compensation. In addition to affecting workers’ day-to-day livelihoods, wage theft impacts remittances and workers’ families in their origin states, all of whom rely heavily on this income for survival.

Cases outlined show that wage theft and other forms of worker exploitation occur at every level— systemically, organisationally, and interpersonally. The scope of this problem cannot be understated. According to the UN, there are 35 million migrant workers in gulf states, over one-third of whom are women.

Some states are beginning to improve their processes. Qatar has introduced a minimum wage for migrant workers, and Kuwait has activated a website where migrant workers can issue complaints related to wage theft. But these measures barely scratch the surface of what needs to be done.

States must reconstruct migrant-centred justice systems that ensure employer accountability and recognise the vulnerabilities and barriers faced by migrant workers, especially women.

MFA recommends that states institute, at minimum, free and remotely accessible labour courts, wage protection systems, and worker hotlines in languages commonly spoken by migrant workers. States should also maintain up- to-date records on migrant workers and provide grievance reporting systems – which currently fall to civil society organisations.

Ultimately, employers must ensure that all salaries are paid in full and without delay. As companies continue         prioritising profits over worker protections, it is crucial that we advocate for government regulations that will hold employers of migrant labourers accountable for wage theft.

Next time you enjoy a Big Mac, remember, it would take a migrant worker four days to pay for that burger, and it would take even longer when their wages are stolen. What is four days of hard work worth to you?

By William Gois, Regional Coordinator, Migrant Forum in Asia