Most (if not all) MENA states. (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen)
'The Middle East and North African (MENA) countries are some of the destinations of choice for men and women seeking work. Women look for domestic and child-care work, while employment in the construction industry is the goal of the tens thousands of men from Southeast Asia living in stifling poverty.
Migrant workers have become the majority workforce in many Arab Gulf states – wealthy countries with weak or non-existent domestic-worker rights, destructive gender attitudes that suppress and control women, and endemic racism. This poisonous cocktail, rooted in prejudice and ignorance, fuels and justifies exploitation, including forced labour, physical and sexual abuse, and extreme mistreatment by employers.
Deceived and trapped (their passports, ID’s etc get taken (stolen) away by “employers”) into debt and bonded labour from the start, prospective migrant workers are duped into leaving their homes for Beirut, Dubai, Kuwait City, Riyadh or Sana’a. Naïve and desperate young men and women are promised they will be handsomely paid, that the streets are paved with dollars, that every apartment has hot and cold running water, that designer clothes, smart phones and flat screen TVs are aplenty, and that you too will live the good life, easily repay your loan to the agent and, crucially, help drag your family out of grinding poverty. With hollow promises like these, as the ILO says, migrants are “lured into jobs that either didn’t exist or that were offered under conditions that were very different from what they were promised in the first place” by unscrupulous recruitment agents. The reality for many is one of modern day slavery, imprisonment and violence; mistreatment that in many cases leads some to take their own lives.
All MENA states, apart from Yemen, are signatories to the Palermo Protocol, which clearly defines the conditions of trafficking and whose articles are legally binding, which means and employees who contravene them are guilty of human trafficking. In what could prove to be a significant action, a recent high profile case involving Meshael Alayban a Saudi Arabian princess, has highlighted the fact that the treatment of many migrant domestic workers by their Arab employers qualifies as human trafficking.According to the BBC, the “Princess is accused of forcing a Kenyan woman to work 16 hours a day while paying her far less than what she was originally promised”. She also took away “the woman’s passport, precluding her escape”. The two-year contract guaranteed the women “1,600 US dollars a month, for eight-hour work, five days a week”, but as is often the case she was paid much less – “220 dollars a month and made to work twice as long”. The unnamed Kenyan escaped on a visit to America with the royal household, and has brought a case in California (where they were staying) against the regal Alayban for trafficking. She faces a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.The vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to human trafficking in MENA countries, beyond the underlying prejudicial causes, are due to two primary factors: the Dickensian kafala (Arabic for “bail”) employment system, allied to the lack of labour protection and legal redress, and the initial recruitment process, with agents extending loans to prospectve migrants for employment fees, forging passports and other documentation and travel costs. This creates debt bondage, trapping the unsuspecting into years of bonded labour.The kafala sponsorship system forms the legal basis for both residency and employment for migrant domestic workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and in Lebanon and Jordon. Under the scheme the employer, to all extent and purposes, “owns” the migrant worker, who cannot change employers, unless the sponsor decides to sell them on to someone – a lucrative add-on for employers and a form of trafficking that fuels resistance to the schemes abolition, vehemently called for by human rights groups and all right minded thinkers.
Labour laws for migrant domestic workers in MENA countries, where they exist at all, vary in structure but not in inadequacy or lack of enforcement. All domestic work occurs beyond the protection of national labour laws, and anti-trafficking laws designed to protect migrant workers from abuse are not enforced.Under Lebanese law for example, migrant domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house without the permission of their employers, making it possible, and in many cases likely, for employers to imprison workers, exploit them and force them to work beyond their contract, with the kafala preventing the innocent victim from reporting the abuse without risking losing residency status. It is a legal trap not confined to Lebanon, which contributes to human trafficking by creating conditions of compelled service and forced labour.Confinement, dependency, weak labour laws, plus migrant domestic workers’ inability to speak the local language or understand their rights under international law (what few exist), make them acutely vulnerable. A Filipina domestic worker who tried to escape abusive employers in Lebanon told the ILO, according to CNN, “my employer broke my elbow and then tied my hands behind my back. They left me one day long in my room and put a camera there. He threatened me: ‘I’ll accuse you of stealing money and ask for my money back, and they will throw you in jail’,” she said.Another Filipina domestic worker interviewed in a detention centre in Kuwait told the ILO that her employer had raped her. “I went to the doctors and filed a complaint at the police, and then returned to work the next day. He reported to the authorities that I had run away, and the police arrested me,” she said. “My employer tells me that if I drop the rape charges, he will make sure that I am not deported.’