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October 2008, Volume 15, Number 4

Middle East: Sponsorship, Maids

The Saudi government in July 2008 announced that it was considering an end to the kafalah sponsorship system, which requires migrant workers to have a local sponsor to obtain a work permit. Migrants must obtain the employer's permission to change jobs or leave the country. Under one proposal, the Saudi government will establish agencies to recruit and manage foreign workers.

Kuwait's Labor Ministry announced that it was also considering an end to the sponsorship system. In July 2008, some 80,000 Bangladeshi migrant cleaners and laborers protested unpaid wages and deductions from their pay, often $100 a month or less, for work permit fees. Up to 1,000 strikers were deported to Bangladesh, where they complained that they had borrowed money to go to Kuwait and had no means to repay their debts. After the protests, the Kuwaiti government set a minimum wage of 40 dinars ($150) a month for migrants who clean offices, schools and hospitals.

Kuwait's government said it may introduce a KD40 ($150) monthly minimum wage, at least for workers employed by government agencies, and stop recruiting low-skill workers from countries such as Bangladesh, where they are subject to excessive fees.

Bahrain, which has 51 percent citizens and 49 percent foreigners among its one million residents, provides migrant workers with more labor rights than most other Gulf states. The 500,000 foreigners include 300,000 Indians. In July 2008, migrant bus drivers earning BD 200 ($531) a month went on strike to support their demand for a raise of BD 80 ($212) a month, citing high inflation.

Domestic Helpers. Most households in Gulf oil-exporting countries hire multiple domestic helpers, from gardeners and security guards to cooks and cleaners. There are 626,000 domestic helpers from Indonesia in Saudi Arabia, and HRW released a report in July 2008 that accused the Saudi and Indonesian governments of not doing enough to help Indonesian domestic helpers.

Indonesian consular officials report an average 15 complaints a day from Indonesian helpers in Saudi Arabia, most involving wages, since domestic helpers are often not paid regularly and, when paid, are often paid less than promised. Indonesia raised the minimum monthly wage for domestic helpers from SR600 ($160) to SR800 ($213) in 2007, but many women reportedly do not receive the higher salary.

There are a total of 1.5 million Indonesians employed in Middle Eastern countries; 90 percent are domestic helpers.

Iraq. The US Department of State in July 2008 began implementing a plan to admit at least 5,000 Iraqi refugees a year who served as translators for the US military and civilians in Iraq. Under the program, Iraqis can apply for refugee status in Iraq and they will receive eight months of integration assistance once they reach the US.

Yemen. About 32,000 migrants have made the journey over the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in the first 10 months of 2008; 70 percent were Somalis. Smugglers have sometimes thrown migrants overboard as they neared the Yemeni coast to avoid capture, and some reportedly die trying to reach land.

Yemen, with a population of 23 million growing almost five percent a year, is running out of water. Much of Yemen's water is in deep aquifers that may take decades to replenish, and most is used to grow khat, a nearly tasteless leafy plant that is chewed; it can fetch $2 to $50 a bag, depending on quality. The government indirectly subsidizes khat growing by subsidizing diesel fuel used in agriculture at $0.65 a gallon, enabling farmers to pump water.