Protecting the most vulnerable: Why protecting the rights of migrant workers remains a critical priority

ILO Regional Director for Arab States Dr. Ruba Jaradat reflects on the importance of International Migrants Day for millions of workers in the Middle East

Statement | 18 December 2019
©ILO/Leila Alaoui
The world of work is changing, and with it, the daily lives of the millions of migrant workers around the world.

In our region of the Middle East, we continue to see large flows of migrants, or ‘temporary expatriate workers’ as they are referred to in many parts of the region. The ILO estimates that in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alone, there are 23 million migrant workers, and research shows that nearly 4 million of these could be domestic workers (of which almost half are women).

However, the future of work is likely to result in many changes to these patterns and experiences. Nationalization strategies promoting employment of nationals, advancements in technology, and changing demands of the labour market all influence the sectors where migrants are needed. Whilst the vast number of migrant workers in the region come from Asia - and South Asia in particular - there is growing labour mobility from a kaleidoscope of countries in Africa. Ageing populations in the region will increasingly rely on (home-based) workers, most of whom are migrant workers.

Since the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was endorsed by the UN General Assembly one year ago, with 152 UN Member States voting in favour, the topic of migration has rarely left the headlines. Yet often the discourse has been overly simplistic. Sometimes, it has been toxic and guided by fears and prejudice more than by hard evidence. A nuanced discussion of labour migration, and how it will be affected by the future of work, is sorely needed; and the ILO was pleased to contribute to such a dialogue as part of a High-Level Panel Discussion on the Future of Work during the 5th Ministerial Consultation of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue in October.

Despite the negative rhetoric, migrants continue to make significant contributions to their societies, and can do so much more when they are empowered and able to negotiate on a more equal footing with their employers, backed by the full coverage of the Labour Law.

Despite much progress in the region, including policy reforms to existing sponsorship systems and the governance of domestic work, low-wage workers, and particularly domestic workers, continue to face challenges in enforcing their rights vis-à-vis their employers. They are limited in their ability to leave an employer without falling into irregular status, or in some cases to terminate the employment contract and leave the country, without their employer’s permission. Re-balancing the relationship between employers and workers will take time, but legislation that conforms to international labour standards, strong enforcement action and government information campaigns are all critical components in achieving this goal.

So, during this International Migrants Day, let us again reflect upon and appreciate the contribution that migrant workers make to each of our daily lives, and to acknowledge that, whatever the future of work brings, the goal of protecting the most vulnerable in our workforce needs to remain a critical priority.