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Sat 2 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Big questions about labour and long-standing systems

Conrad Egbert speaks to the ILO, HRW and MoL on the new ‘temporary contractual labour' and the sponsorship law.

Big questions about labour and long-standing systems
QUESTIONS: The Gulf Forum on Temporary Contractual Labour debated long-standing issues such as the need for the sponsorship system.
Big questions about labour and long-standing systems
CRITICAL: In the sponsorship system, employees’ work visas are issued through their employer.

The Gulf Forum on Temporary Contractual Labour that was held last month in Abu Dhabi saw labour ministers and other officials from 22 countries debating long-standing issues including two very important ones - the relevance of the term ‘temporary contractual labour' and whether there was a need for the sponsorship system.

According to HE Dr Ali Abdulla Al Kaabi, the UAE minister of labour, even though temporary contractual workers are already instated under UAE law, one of the main aims of the Gulf Forum was to establish this form of work contract across the GCC.

It was mostly businessmen who are in support of the sponsorship law.

A reasonably accurate definition of what a temporary contractual worker is, would be a worker who leaves his or her country to work and reside temporarily in another one on a temporary contract, after the conclusion of which, they would return to their home country.

Brunson McKinley, director general for the International Organisation for Migration and manager of the Gulf Forum backed the concept of temporary contractural labour.

"The UAE labour market is different from the rest of the world with people coming here to work on a temporary basis.

"They are not immigrating to the country, like they do to other places like the US, Canada or Australia and I think this is what needs to be differentiated here.

"This sort of contract is a growing trend and many countries in the world are looking to adopt this system. They're all wondering how to get temporary workers to come to their countries to work without changing their demographic situation."

But Heba El-Shazli, the Middle East regional program director for Washington-based Solidarity Centre, said that the need for ‘a different term' has come out of a linguistic problem and a fear of mass immigration.

"In Arabic there is only one term for ‘migration' and ‘immigration' so that is where the problem lies. In English, immigration and migration mean two separate things. Immigration is when people move to settle in a different country permanently while migration is akin to birds moving temporarily to another place and then back home again.

"There seems to be a deep fear that people may want to soon immigrate to Middle East countries, and that is what they want to avoid. They want to make it clear that people come here on ‘temporary contracts' and so the term is specific.

On the other hand, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said it was interested in the workings of the system rather than terminologies.
Nada Al-Nashif, regional director, regional office for Arab states, ILO said: "We call them ‘migrant workers' but the GCC can go ahead and call them ‘temporary contractual labour' if they like and we won't care as long as we see that it's working well. These terms are just red herrings and distractions from the real issue.

"For example, even the sponsorship law was hotly contested at the Forum. And again, if the sponsorship law is being taken advantage of and is causing problems we would like to see it done away with, but if it's working well and is protecting the workers better, we would most definitely keep it.

However, some of the GCC labour ministers weren't as accommodating as the ILO and called for the sponsorship law to be abandoned entirely.

Bahraini labour minister Majid Al-Alawi said the law left foreign workers at the mercy of the individuals or institutions which employed them and called for governments to oversee visas and work permits to protect the rights of foreign workers.

Similarly, the Omani minister of labour said the law was ‘equivalent to slavery' and needed to be reformed. The Kuwaiti minister of labour said that such a law didn't exist forty years ago, and that it could be abolished.

El-Shazli added: "It was mostly businessmen who are in support of the sponsorship law. They said that it was there to protect them in case an employee - such as an accountant - ran off with their money.

Under the sponsorship system employees' work visas are issued through their employer. The system has received a lot of criticism for giving employers too much power over their employees and leaving workers open to abuse and exploitation.

"Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait have all questioned the sponsorship system and suggested it be reformed or abolished, saying it causes problems," added Nisha Varia, senior Asia researcher, Human Rights Watch.

"It is no secret that many employers here keep their worker's passports which is illegal and this is where this system can, and is being abused.

"The Bahrain Minister of Labour has suggested it would be better if the government controlled the legal status of workers, and we encourage reform in this area.

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