Ending the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in the Gulf

By Auwal, Mohammad A. | The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Ending the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in the Gulf


Auwal, Mohammad A., The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs


Migrant laborers provide important services and support in our globalizing world. They provide a variety of menial and low-skill services in the private and public sectors. They work in factories, fish farms, households, plantations, and construction sites and serve as nannies, maids, cooks, sweepers, servants, and laborers both within and beyond their nation-state boundaries. In this article, I refer to migrant workers as those who have been, are, or plan to be engaged in work for wages in states which they are not nationals.1 According to a 2006 estimate by the International Labor Organization (ILO), "there are more than 86 million migrant workers in the world, 34 million of them in developing regions."2 According to existing literature and media reports, migrant workers are exploited in most regions of the world.

In this paper, I analyze the ways migrant workers are being victimized in their quest for better jobs in the Gulf states where some 10 million of them currently serve. Jobs resulting from this region's great wealth of oil and gas draw in tens of thousands of new migrants every year. Looking for a way out of poverty, migrant workers from developing countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia pay large fees to obtain labor-intensive jobs in this region. While many of them are able to earn more than they would have earned in their native countries, many also suffer appalling abuse. In both the sending and receiving countries, migrant workers are often misled and exploited by intermediaries, sponsors, and employers.

In numerous cases, the migrant laborers end up not only losing the investments they make in obtaining their jobs, but also their basic human dignity, health, and, in some tragic cases, even their lives. All too often, they are deprived of pay, forced to work, left in squalid living conditions, denied the freedom to move or change jobs, and subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Their exploitation violates both internationally established norms and basic principles of the Islamic faith that serve as the foundation of morality and law in these states.

Migrant workers today are an extremely vulnerable group and are caught up in the throes of a vicious problem that is created and sustained by poverty, labor rackets, dynamics of globalization, and government inaction or corruption in both their home and host countries. Ending this problem is a moral imperative for both the governments that send and receive them. Robust policy prescriptions to put an end to this vicious problem are also available; yet, they are not being acted upon primarily due to a lack of social awareness about the plight of migrant workers. In the absence of a catalyst for action, ending the exploitation of migrant workers is not at the top of the public agenda in either the sending or the receiving countries.

I therefore propose that "moral diplomacy" can serve as a catalyst to spark policy changes that can lead to the end of migrant labor exploitation. Migrant workers must be treated with human dignity, given fair wages on time, and guaranteed their fundamental human rights. Reforms of the migrant labor system must ensure that migrant workers have "decent work" which, in the ILO's terms, is "productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and dignity."3 These rights are rooted in the ethical and social justice traditions found not only in international law, 4 but in Islamic law5 and in the national legal systems of the Gulf states as well.

I conceive of moral diplomacy broadly as diplomacy with ethical consciousness. Essentially, it is a strategic communication campaign that should have both conventional diplomatic and public/citizen-diplomatic dimensions. Anchored in the largely universally recognized moral values of those recognized in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, moral diplomacy can be conducted not just by professional diplomats but also by the world's citizens who care about human rights and believe in vulnerable people's right to decent work and life. …

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