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July 2014, Volume 21, Number 3

South Asia, Middle East

An estimated 10,000 Indians and 35,000 Bangladeshis were in Iraq in June 2014 when fighting broke out between Suni insurgents and the Iraqi government. Many of the migrants were unable to leave because their Iraqi employers held their passports and refused to return them.

Bangladesh. A survey of 1,200 returned migrants released in May 2014 found that 62 percent financed work abroad by taking out loans or selling land. Once abroad, two-thirds reported difficulty receiving their full wages.

A 2009 IOM survey found that most Bangladeshis in Gulf oil exporters were married men with little education. Two-thirds were married, the average age of all migrants was 32, and 90 percent had less than 10 years schooling. The average duration of stay in Gulf countries was six years. Two-thirds of Bangladeshi migrants remitted via banks, compared to less than seven percent via Western Union.

Bangladesh received $14.5 billion in remittances in 2013. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics released a study in June 2014 that found most recipients spend most of their remittances on food and other household items. The most common remittance investment was land, reflecting the rural origins of most migrants.

Some 409,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers went abroad in 2013, half the number who were deployed in 2008. In the first five months of 2014, only 107,000 Bangladeshi migrants went abroad. The Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies reported that the typical cost for low-skilled migrant workers going abroad was 200,000 ($3,200) to 500,000 taka ($6,400) in 2014, up from 150,000 to 250,000 taka before the 2008-09 recession.

After Bangladeshis were left stranded in Malaysian airports by recruiters who did not meet them in 2007, the Malaysian government stopped the recruitment of Bangladeshis. In 2012, Malaysia and Bangladesh signed an MOU creating a G-to-G program that eliminated private recruiters.

The first plan was to send 10,000 Bangladeshis who registered with the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) to work on Malaysian plantations. However, of the 9,500 applications submitted by BMET to Malaysia in 2013-14, 7,000 were returned because of errors. In the first year of the agreement, about 5,000 Bangladeshis went to Malaysia to work.

Garments are Bangladesh's major export industry, employing over four million workers, mostly women, in 5,000 sewing factories that exported garments worth $25 billion in FY2013-14. After the Tazreen Fashions fire in November 2012 and the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013, the retailers who buy garments divided into two groups to improve factory safety.

The Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety, which includes 150 mostly European brands that use 1,500 Bangladeshi factories, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that includes Wal-Mart and North American brands and uses 630 Bangladeshi factories, are doing inspections of the sewing factories in which garments they sell are sewn. Some activists complain that the inspections are not rigorous enough, while some factory owners have resisted suggestions to install sprinkler systems and unlock doors.

When inspectors close a factory for safety reasons, the Accord pays the full wages of laid-off workers, while the Alliance pays half of their wages. The United Students Against Sweatshops, which favors the Accord over the Alliance, has been vocal about what it sees as inadequate Alliance inspections and payments to laid-off workers. The Accord posts the results of its inspections on line.

Garment manufacturers and the government may disagree that a factory is unsafe. Garment workers often agree with their employers, fearing that they may lose wages despite Accord promises to pay lost wages.

The US government wants Bangladesh to fulfill a labor-related action plan to restore the country's eligibility for the Generalized System of Preferences, which grants 126 developing countries duty-free access to the US market. The US suspended GSP for Bangladesh in June 2013, and on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013 said that Bangladesh had not yet done enough to regain GSP status. Garments are exempt from GSP, but some firms avoid sourcing goods from countries without GSP status.

India. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs reported that 3.5 million Indians went to Saudi Arabia to work between 2008 and 2012, making Saudi Arabia the leading destination for Indian migrants, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Malaysia, Bahrain and Jordan.

Some 750,000 Indians left in 2012 under the Employment Check Required system, which requires departing migrants to have their contracts checked by the Protector of Emigrants. India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, sent 190,000 migrants abroad in 2012, followed by Kerala, 98,000; Andhra Pradesh, 92,000; and Bihar, 84,000.

Amnesty International India ( released a report in July 2014 that concluded migrants leaving Kerala for Saudi Arabia depart in debt because of "visa brokers and rogue recruiting agents." Recruiters are regulated, but not visa brokers, prompting a recommendation to treat visa brokers as subagents of licensed recruiters and make the recruiters responsible for their activities.

Kerala is one of India's richest states, and the source of many migrant workers employed in Gulf oil exporters. Kerala attracts internal migrants from other states to fill low-skilled jobs, and the Kerala state government in June 2014 announced that it would begin building barracks style camps for these internal Indian migrants.

Kerala's migrants are mostly men between 18 and 35 from West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa who work in construction as well as in manufacturing, trade and agriculture. Most are paid 500 to 550 rupees ($9.25) a day for up to 10 hours of work.

Nepal. Almost 10 percent of the 26 million Nepalese are abroad. The Department of Foreign Employment in the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MoLE) wants to improve conditions for Nepalese migrant workers by signing bilateral agreements with Malaysia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

MoLE is also trying to curb the widespread use of forged documents by workers leaving the country. MoLE plans to scan the documents submitted by migrant workers, including insurance and health certificates and pre-departure orientation certificates.

The Sherpas, the ethnic group that guides climbers up Mount Everest, threatened to strike during the 2014 climbing season after 16 were killed in an avalanche on April 18, 2014, the greatest number killed on a single day on Everest. About 600 to 800 people a year reach the summit of Everest, half of whom are Sherpas who earn $3,000 to $5,000 a season.

The 300 to 400 foreigners who climb Everest pay $40,000 to $80,000, including an $11,000 fee to the government and payments to two Sherpas who assist them. Many of the Sherpas were angered when the government offered the families of those killed $410 each.

Sri Lanka. The Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare in June 2014 emphasized that the Sri Lanka government is trying to minimize the deployment of unskilled workers. However, instead of trying to prevent women from going abroad to work in private homes, the Sri Lanka government requires them to obtain Sri Lanka-certified skills. Sri Lanka expects to receive $7 billion in remittances in 2014.

Sri Lanka signed an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to use a standard contract for domestic workers beginning in June 2014. Previously, there were five signatures on domestic worker contracts, including the employer, UAE agent and Sri Lanka embassy in the UAE, plus the migrant and Sri Lanka agent in Sri Lanka. Under the new procedure, there are only two signatures, the UAE employer and the Sri Lanka worker. The UAE says that other signatures are not necessary, since the UAE government can enforce the contract.

The new contract requires at least eight hours continuous rest a day, 30 days paid leave at the contract period, and round-trip air ticket paid by the employer, but allows the employer to deduct damages caused by the domestic worker from wages.

Qatar. NGOs and UN agencies continue to criticize Qatar as it builds stadiums and infrastructure to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup. In April 2014, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants called for an end to the kafala system used in Gulf oil-exporting countries that ties each migrant to a sponsor, and prohibits migrants from leaving without the sponsor's approval.

The ILO in March 2014 called on the Qatari government to ensure that sufficient sanctions were imposed on the contractors and middlemen who often exploit the kafala system to abuse migrant workers.

There are an estimated 1.2 million migrant workers in Qatar, including 22 percent each from India and Pakistan; 16 percent from Nepal; 13 percent from Iran; 11 percent from the Philippines; and eight percent each from Egypt and Sri Lanka.

A July 2014 report commissioned by the Qatar Foundation blamed the recruitment process in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines for many of the problems of the 450,000 migrant construction workers in Qatar. In countries of origin, migrants pay fees for contracts that are modified after they arrive in Qatar, where passports are often held by employers and wages are sometimes paid late.

Over three-fourths of the migrants interviewed signed contracts after arriving in Qatar.

The report recommended an internet-based recruitment system to reduce migrant-paid fees. Qatari employers should pay for worker medical tests and flights, which would reduce the need for low-skilled workers to take out loans at high interest rates to finance their migration. Recruiters in sending countries pay employers $200 to $600 for each job offer, and then pass the cost on to migrants, a system criticized by the report. Finally, the report recommended a wage system that provides equal pay for equal work rather than pay by nationality, and that employers pay migrants via bank transfer to make it easier to resolve wage payment disputes.

Under the kafala system in Qatar and most Gulf countries, every migrant has a local sponsor who is responsible to ensure that the migrants abide by the terms of their visas. Kafalas must give migrants permission to leave the country, so that if they withhold "no objection certificates," the migrant will not be permitted to depart.

UAE. New York University, the largest private US university, is building a new campus northeast of Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat (happiness) Island where it says NYU's "core values" will prevail, including fair treatment for the migrant workers building the campus. Former President Bill Clinton in May 2014 spoke to the first NYU graduates of the UAE campus, saying it portended the creation of a "global network university."

Some 6,000 mostly South Asian workers built the NYU campus, and some allege that they were underpaid and mistreated. The problems begin at home, where recruiters often charge migrant workers up to a year's pay to arrange three-year contracts. Some recruiters promise more than the standard $200 to $300 a month wages, and workers learn only after their arrival that earning $200 to $300 requires overtime work under very hot conditions. Despite 11-hour days six days a week, some guest workers say that they struggle to remit $100 a month to families at home.

Contractors and subcontractors built the 21-building NYU campus, and NYU says that both are obliged to abide by NYU values in their treatment of workers. However, the New York Times reported in May 2014 that many of the contractors hold the passports of their workers, and noted that some Bangladeshi workers employed by BK Gulf who went on strike were deported before their grievances were resolved.

Dubai's airport in 2014 replaced London's Heathrow Airport as the world's busiest international air travel hub. Dubai had over 67 million passengers, and aims to handle 100 million passengers in 2019. There are fewer than 170,000 Emiratis, but Dubai is a convenient airline hub because it is within eight flying hours of two-thirds of the world's population.

Dubai hopes that some of those catching connecting flights will visit two of the world's largest shopping malls, including one with an aquarium and another with an indoor ski slope. Dubai has the world's tallest building, the 2,717 foot high Burj Khalifa.

Jureidini, Ray. 2014. Migrant Labour Recruitment to Qatar. Qatar Foundation.