April 2011, Volume 18, Number 2
The Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, had 15 million migrant workers in 2010, according to the World Bank. Some 11 million, almost 75 percent, were from Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The Wall Street Journal on March 4, 2011 reported that many GCC employers prefer Asians to Arabs, in part because they prefer a willingness to work for low wages more than knowledge of Arabic. Some large hotels reportedly employ almost all English-speaking Asians; they include a handful of Arabic speakers to deal with Arabic-speaking guests. Some GCC governments consider Asians less likely than Arabs to pose political risks.
UAE. Some four million guest workers were employed by 260,000 private establishments in 2010; 98 percent of private-sector workers in the UAE were foreigners. UAE employers request individual or group labor permits from the UAE Ministry of Labor that specify the number, nationality and gender of desired foreign workers. MOL charges 200 dirhans ($55) for individual worker permits, and 1,000 to 3,000 dirhans for group permits.
According to the UAE employment and human resources authority Tanmia, foreigners were 87 percent of UAE residents in 2010.
UAE employers are classified into A, B, and C categories depending on how many foreign workers of one nationality they employ, how many UAE nationals they employ, and other factors. In 2010, about 21 percent of foreign workers were employed by A-firms with less than 30 percent of workers of one nationality, 52 percent were employed by B firms with 30 to 70 percent workers of one nationality, and 27 percent were employed by C firms with 70 percent or more workers of one nationality. The average fee paid for a group permit is 2,060 dirhans ($560), reflecting the concentration of guest worker employment among B firms.
The UAE regulates the activities of labor recruiters, who must be Emirati citizens. UAE recruiters must post significant bonds ($80,000 to $275,000) and not charge migrants for recruitment services in their countries of origin or in the UAE. In January 2011, the UAE MOL required recruiters who provide migrants to third parties to deposit a bond of Dh1 million (US$270,000) plus Dh2,000 (US$540) per employee to provide funds to pay workers if the employer to whom recruiters send workers fails to pay their wages.
Since 2009, UAE employers must pay migrant workers by depositing their wages in UAE banks; this electronic Wage Protection System aims to expedite the resolution of wage disputes. However, in 2011 it was reported that some contractors were not paying their migrant workers because they themselves had not been paid by developers. Some migrants protesting unpaid wages were stranded at migrant camps on the outskirts of Dubai without electricity or running water. They could leave the UAE, but many workers fear that if they left without collecting back wages, they will never receive them.
Some 30,000 mostly Bangladeshi construction workers employed by Arabtec, the builder of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, went on strike in January 2011 to demand a wage increase from 650 dirhans (800 with overtime) to 1,200 dirhans ($325) a month. The striking workers complained that they did not get as much overtime as they expected and, because of high living costs in Dubai, could not save. The UAE deported 71 strikers. The Bangladeshi consul in the UAE said: "we tried our best to save them from deportation, [but] we could not help them" because strikes are unlawful in the UAE.
The availability of migrant workers has reduced productivity in UAE construction and services. The UAE has no minimum wage. One suggestion to raise productivity is to introduce a minimum wage.
Saudi Arabia. There were short-lived demonstrations in Saudi Arabia in March 2011. The government announced a round of benefit payments and plans to increase the number of Saudis in the labor force from about four million in 2011 to five million in 2013.
Qatar. A survey of 169 migrant workers released in March 2011 reported that two-thirds sometimes received their wages late. The major problem faced by migrants was the recruitment debts incurred in their country of origin before their arrival in Qatar. Half of the workers interviewed paid an average of four months Qatari earnings in recruitment fees, usually by taking out loans. Almost a quarter of the migrants interviewed had worked abroad before, and 35 percent worked seven days a week in Qatar.
Israel. Israel continues to grapple with foreign workers who overstay their visas. Most overstayers entered legally to work in construction and agriculture or as domestic helpers, but many stayed on after their visas expired, in some cases because the workers paid high recruitment fees and failed to achieve their savings targets.
Israeli law allows private recruiters to charge migrants up to 3,400 shekels ($925) for jobs in Israel. In January 2011, a recruitment agency was alleged to have sold work permits for up to $10,000 each to Thais coming to Israel to fill farm jobs.
Nour Abuzant, "One-third of Asian workers not paid on time: survey," Gulf Times, March 7, 2011. Angela Giuffrida, "UAE Construction Workers Stranded, With No Pay and No Prospects," New York Times, February 9, 2011.