James Lynch

Despite signing a number of commitments to counter human trafficking and forced labour, governments in Gulf states are falling short in the fight against the most pervasive form of criminality in the region.

A key theme cuts across the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Global Organized Crime Index 2021 among the six states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. In Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Index finds that the most pervasive criminal market is human trafficking. Four of these countries score at least 8 out of 10 for this indicator in the Index, meaning that human trafficking has ‘a negative influence on nearly all parts of society; it is highly profitable, and the market accrues significant value’. Few regions in the world score as poorly as the Gulf for this indicator.

These scores are a reflection of the human suffering that exists on a significant scale in the region. The Gulf states are highly dependent on low-paid migrant workers, predominantly from Asia and increasingly from Africa. Around 30 million foreign nationals – more than half of the region’s total population – sustain a wide range of economic sectors from domestic work to hospitality and construction. Subjected to repressive Kafala employment systems – which define the relationship between foreign workers and a local sponsor, or kafeel –  tied to their employers and denied rights to unionize, foreign workers face a catalogue of abuses, including having their passports confiscated, wage theft and physical violence. Such abuses, which often amount to forced labour, have been widely documented in recent years in the lead-up to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, which became an emblematic eye-opener for practices that prevail in the Gulf region.

Human trafficking is rife, with workers routinely lied to about exploitative terms and conditions during the recruitment process and made to pay extortionate fees to secure their jobs. These payments may take place in origin states, but the financial benefit is often enjoyed by employers in the Gulf who get discounted recruitment at the expense of the worker. When foreign workers reach the end of their contract, some employers monetize their control over them by selling them to other employers. A 2019 BBC investigation found that women domestic workers in Kuwait were being traded on Instagram and other apps.

Surface-level solutions

There is no lack of public commitment to tackling human trafficking among the governments of the region. All six GCC states are signatories to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the international instrument to tackle human trafficking, and have written anti-trafficking measures into their legislation. Governments have also partnered with international agencies to tackle the issue. Committees, task forces and strategies abound, and hardly a month goes past without a conference being held to raise awareness of and ‘say no‘ to trafficking.

But despite these commitments, the Global Organized Crime Index identifies that limited progress has been made in tackling these practices on the ground. There are several reasons for this. One is that governments have tended to prioritize the issue of sex trafficking over labour trafficking. In the case of the UAE, Dubai has gained a reputation as a sex trafficking hotspot and the country offers trafficking support services to women and children. However, none are offered to migrant men, who make up the large majority of the country’s workforce. In 2017, Bahrain launched a national referral mechanism to identify and support victims of trafficking, but the procedure is primarily geared towards victims of sex trafficking, and not forced labour (in 2018, the country referred only one forced labour case for prosecution). Although undoubtedly a critically serious issue, the scale of sex trafficking in the region is vastly overshadowed by labour trafficking.

Another reason, which the US State Department has been persistently critical of, is that governments in the region misclassify potential trafficking crimes as administrative labour law violations rather than as criminal offences. As a general rule, where migrant workers have been recruited through regular means and are employed by legitimate entities, abuses against them are dealt with by labour inspectorates rather than law enforcement, regardless of whether they might fall under anti-trafficking legislation. Governments are more aggressive towards black-market ‘visa traders‘, who sell work permits to aspiring migrants, but, all too often, interventions by law enforcement in relation to these issues involve arresting victims of trafficking for immigration violations or for fleeing their sponsors’ homes.

A practice that runs deep

Such failings beg the question of why the Gulf states have not made more progress on implementing their international commitments on trafficking, given that the practice substantially damages their international reputation and that they have ostensibly powerful state institutions capable of and willing to intervene on a range of issues.

A key obstacle is the expectation on the part of business elites – many of whom are closely linked to ruling families – that they can hire, and retain, a low-cost migrant labour force. Many business owners have developed a reliance on migrants and the cheap convenience the Kafala system guarantees. Besides the financial prerogative, there are also social factors: the Kafala system has played a role in sustaining national identities across the region, apportioning enhanced status to citizens as opposed to foreigners. The ability to recruit and depend on foreign domestic workers has in some respects become part of the social contract for Gulf citizens.

Such factors weaken the political will of Gulf governments to seriously tackle the pervasive abuse of migrant workers, and lead to surface-level solutions: laws and regulations issued without real intent to implement them, bilateral agreements with origin states that are non-binding in nature, or enhanced ‘worker welfare’ standards to temporarily cover workers on reputationally sensitive projects such as Dubai’s Expo 2020. Qatar’s labour reform programme, drafted in partnership with the International Labour Organization and agreed to at the height of a political crisis in 2017, when the government was in need of international support, is one rare example of a Gulf state explicitly committing to structural labour reforms. However, the success and sustainability of this programme remains open to question.

For Gulf states to improve their poor rankings for human trafficking in the Organized Crime Index and make a difference to their broader criminality scores, they need to go beyond public-facing anti-trafficking initiatives and talking shops, and start to take seriously the daily exploitation and abuse of millions of workers who service their economies and contribute to their societies. Beyond enforcement activities, this will require overhauling the government structures and systems that allow criminality to thrive in the first place.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.

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