The Gulf's employment crisis (4)

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts exploring employment problems in the Arab Gulf states.

Part one: How it began

Part two: The iniquities of kafala

Part three: Female domestic workers

Part four: Working outside the rules

Part five: Jobs for citizens?

Part six: Jobs, politics and ethnocracy



ILLEGAL, undocumented, irregular, unauthorised. No matter how you describe these migrants, they are the backbone of the “informal” sector in the Arab Gulf economies. Nobody knows how many there are, since the nature of their activities makes them difficult to count, but their numbers are certainly very large. Saudi Arabia alone has expelled well over a million of them during the last 18 months.

Kuwait, meanwhile, is in the throes of a visa-trading scandal which is said to involve members of the royal family and a prominent footballer as well as government officials and hundreds of companies.

In the US State Department’s worldwide survey of trafficking in people, both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are listed in the bottom tier as countries that not only fail to meet international standards but are also doing next to nothing about it. Both are described by the State Department as destination countries “for men and women subjected to forced labour and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution.”

There are four basic categories of “illegal” migrant workers in the Gulf:

1. Those who entered illegally through smuggling or people-trafficking.

2. Those who entered legally (e.g. for pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia) but stayed after their visa expired.

3. Those who acquired documentation through visa trading.

4. Those who entered and worked legally but have since become illegal through the vagaries of the kafala (sponsorship) system.

The first two categories, illegal entrants and overstayers, are fairly self-explanatory. There is a long history of irregular migration in the Gulf – in the early days mainly by sea. Nowadays, some also enter through normal channels with forged paperwork.

Traditionally, large numbers of Yemenis have sneaked across the long and porous border with Saudi Arabia to find work in the kingdom, though the Saudis are now constructing a wall. 
Besides those who enter under false pretences with the intention of obtaining work, over-stayers technically include those who leave their registered employer-sponsor to work for someone else without permission.

Visa trading

Visa trading is a form of trafficking – and a multi-million dollar industry in the Gulf. Citizens of Gulf states register a company (which is often a fake business) and then obtain visas allowing them to bring in foreign workers. The visas are then sold (illegally) to foreign migrants, with a scale of charges based on nationality. Indians, for example, may pay $2,000 and Iranians $4,000.

Once they arrive in the destination country, these migrants have no job awaiting them and may thus fall victim to abuse and extortion.

The scale of visa trading appears to be enormous. One estimate in the UAE in 2004 put the number of workers sponsored by fictitious companies at 600,000 or 27% of the total workforce. Around the same time, the Saudi minister of labour stated that 70% of visas issued by the government were subsequently sold.

The authorities in the Gulf are well aware of this happening but, despite periodic crackdowns, they have failed to eradicate it. If the latest scandal in Kuwait is anything to judge by, it is easy to see why they have been so unsuccessful.

Reports emerged last month of “a massive visa fraud ring” which is said to include at least six members of the ruling al-Sabah family – some of them holding senior positions in the interior ministry. An article in Arabian Business gives some details:

“The ring leader of the visa fraud system is alleged to be a former director of the interior ministry, who is a direct relative of Sheikh Ahmad [who stepped down as interior minister last year] …

“At least one member of the al-Sabah family is accused of making KD100,000 ($354,007) a month from issuing illegal visas.

“The fraud was uncovered when a foreign worker arrived in Kuwait with a visa in the name of Sheikh Ahmad’s office director, Al Rai reported.

“Authorities used the fake visa to track down thousands of others that had been issued by the former interior ministry director.

“The investigation had remained confidential until recently, due to the connection with the ruling family.”

As a result of this investigation, about 12,000 visas issued to foreigners have now been suspended.

A further 40,000 workers in Kuwait have also been stripped of their visas after around 1,000 companies were found to have been “illegally operating as visa distributors”.

In what appears to be a separate case, a well-known (but unnamed) retired footballer is alleged to have illegally “released” 650 visas “in cooperation with state employees”.

In theory, computer-based systems ought to be more effective at tracking visas and foreign workers than paper-based systems, with fewer opportunities for fiddling and cheating. That is what the Kuwaitis thought they had achieved a few years ago by introducing a database.

But it now appears that the database lacks a basic security system. “There have been incidents in which the ministry’s database is hacked to create job openings in a company’s file,” the Kuwait Times reports, “after which those openings are used to issue work permits which are then sold to workers”.

The vagaries of kafala

The much-criticised kafala system, which ties work permits to residence permits through a single sponsor/employer is a major cause of illegal working. The main problem, which has often been highlighted, is that workers forfeit their right to residence if they leave a job without the employer’s approval. 

But several other problems have emerged as a result of the Saudi crackdown on “illegal” migrants that began in earnest last November.

Some migrant workers are so badly paid that they take on additional part-time work, unofficially. This extra work is not part of the contract with their sponsor and is therefore illegal.

Hospital cleaners in Makkah found themselves in that position last November. Deprived of this supplementary income by the crackdown, they went on strike demanding huge pay rises – an increase from 400 riyals ($107) a month to 700 riyals – from their official employer. 

In Saudi Arabia at least, work permits tend to be very specific and restrictive. This was a factor in the Jeddah sewage crisis last year when truck drivers who would normally have been emptying septic tanks went into hiding for fear of arrest.

Previously, many of the drivers had been subcontracted – which, as a result of the crackdown, technically put them on the wrong side of the law. Another driver who absented himself told the Saudi Gazette he was afraid of arrest because the profession shown on his documents was that of a private driver, which meant he was unable to apply for a public transport licence.

Foreigners whose jobs require them to move around may also fall foul of the law. For example, a plumber doing a job in someone’s house could, if the authorities wanted to be strict about it, be deemed to be not at his registered workplace.

There is also an abusive practice by employers known as contract substitution which can cross the line into forced labour territory. Having signed a contract for one job, the worker arrives in the country – to be presented with a difference contract and a different job. A report by the International Labour Organisation says:

"Some migrant workers discover upon arrival that they will be subcontracted to several companies. In many cases, migrant workers will sign the second contract anyway because they are already in debt and fear deportation. 

"Interviews with Afghan migrant workers at a labour camp in the UAE underscored the precarious conditions in which they live. ‘We work for several companies in the construction sector,’ explained one man. ‘Our sponsor sub-contracts us, and it’s difficult to work like that because sometimes you have a lot of work up to 15 hours a day and sometimes very little.

"Subcontracting is legal in the UAE, but only if certain conditions are observed."

The report also describes the case of a Nepalese migrant worker who signed a contract in Nepal to be a cook in a restaurant at Dubai airport, only to have to sign another contract on arrival in the UAE – a contract which he did not understand because it was written in English and Arabic. 

“This worker ended up working as a cleaner in Sharjah Free Zone, earning 1,124 AED [$306] a month instead of the 1,500 AED [$410] promised by the employer. 

“He was subsequently forced by his employer to work as a security guard at Sharjah prison and was arrested and detained by the authorities for working with the wrong sponsor and without the appropriate work visa.”

Further reading: