Standing between two rubber trees in a southern Indian village, Usman Thondiyan fondly describes the 17 years he spent making and sewing sofas in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, working around 80 hours a week for 200 at $ 400 per month. “I received little education and had no chance of getting a decent paying job in India, so I opted for migration. Gulf money bought me a house and a rubber plantation, ”the man said proudly.
Money sent home by Gulf migrant workers – about $ 115 billion in 2019 – is a lifeline for millions of households in South Asia and Africa. In Nepal, for example, personal remittances account for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.
Like tens of millions of migrant workers in the Gulf region, Thondiyan pocketed higher tax-free wages than he could have earned in his hometown. But he had to leave Jeddah after the termination of his employment contract; he chose to return home to become a self-funded retiree. The Gulf economies, structured around an available foreign workforce, offer no formal path to citizenship, permanent residence or access to public pension schemes.
The transitional way of life offered to migrant workers meets the immediate needs of the Gulf countries. Still, the short-sighted migration plans that have propelled economic development may need to evolve, as the region – particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – aims to emerge as a leading global hub connecting the East and the West and attract new industries.
“Better economic opportunities in the countries of origin of blue-collar workers combined with (in the case of Dubai) a massive push to attract more permanent residents require further relaxation of the agreement,” Nicolas Dunais, Managing Director of Dubai Azal Advisors, a public policy-based consultancy firm, told Al-Monitor.
The UAE announced in January 2021 that it would grant citizenship to foreign investors, specialist talents, doctors, engineers and artists appointed by royals or UAE officials. According to 2021 passport index, the UAE passport is the 16th strongest in the world. However, the acquisition of UAE citizenship remains reserved for a few privileged people.
Difference in rights
Softening the migration deal to reinvent Gulf economies beyond oil and gas revenues could mean offering more generous social benefits. With the notable exception of non-discriminatory vaccination campaigns – except in Kuwait, where citizens lined up to be trapped before migrant workers – foreigners are excluded from these programs.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rights gap between citizens and migrant workers widened as Gulf governments openly favored local populations. In April 2020, the Saudi government announced that it would pay 60% of the salaries of citizens working in the private sector, with a monthly limit of 9,000 riyals ($ 2,400) per person.
In addition, some employers unilaterally imposed wage cuts and exploited chaotic repatriations to avoid paying migrant workers who then returned home empty-handed. Prominent Indian politician Shashi Tharoor told Al-Monitor in August 2020 that Gulf states and labor-exporting countries “must develop a strong mechanism to monitor and track these cases.”
This uncertainty of being paid also affects end-of-service benefits, a sum of money that Gulf employers are legally required to pay in the event of dismissal. Dunais said: “Since the end-of-service indemnity is only paid at the end of his tenure in a company, the prospect of the latter’s insolvency represents a sword of Damocles hanging from expatriate workers in a company. a context where the prospects of recovering contributions are limited in practice. “
Last year, 150 workers employed by a Bahraini company struggled to survive in the island nation while awaiting payment of their end-of-service allowances and their salary arrears.
“ Human rights on and off the pitch ”
From a regulatory standpoint, Gulf migrant workers are still very vulnerable to the widespread abuse permitted by the ‘kafala’ system, a private sponsorship system that allows employers to exercise strict control over their employees and is often assimilated to modern slavery.
Reforms in Qatar have largely dismantled the kafala system. Yet human rights organizations stress that stricter law enforcement is needed and that the provisions of the law allowing employers to file complaints against their employees should be abolished.
As the Gulf states appear more connected than ever to the global economy and host international sporting and cultural events, the issue of violations of the rights of migrant workers is increasingly seen as a source of concern and long-term risk. term for reputation.
A backlash against the World Cup, due to take place in Qatar in 2022, has intensified following the publication by The Guardian of a report revealing that more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar in the past decade. In March 2021, players of the Norwegian team wore t-shirts bearing the message “Human rights on and off the pitch”.
Portable social protection instruments
While off the radar for most migrant workers in the face of more immediate concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of retirement programs, including pensions, is also part of the compromise for better pay in the Gulf.
In the United Arab Emirates, almost half of migrant workers have “no plan to ensure standard of living after retirement or plan to work beyond retirement age, ”a survey conducted by global consulting firm Mercer found.
Of course, the vast majority of migrant workers have little or no access to public pension schemes in their home countries either, so lack of pensions is more the rule than the exception for many workers around the world. , including in the United States.
Ginu Zacharia Oommen is an Indian researcher who focuses on the South Asia-Gulf migration corridor. He told Al-Monitor: “The faith of our construction workers in the Gulf is not part of the public discourse here in India. It is a neglected community. “
However, there are private initiatives which could constitute a new benchmark for certain companies. The international airline Emirates has managed its contingency fund since 1991 and completes monthly employee deposits to the fund with a contribution of 12% of the basic salary of an employee. Currently, only 15% of employees surveyed by Mercer in the UAE have access to a company pension plan, but it could become widespread.
Dunais said Gulf policymakers are currently considering portable social protection instruments for migrant workers in the form of mobility savings accounts, which would be linked to retirement savings schemes and funded both by employees. and employers. Such instruments could well become compulsory.