By Lynne Roberts and AFP
COLOMBO PROCESS: GCC and Asian labour ministers draw up action plan to protect foreign workers.
Gulf Arab states heavily dependent on an Asian labour force agreed on Tuesday with labour-sending Asian countries to join forces against the exploitation of expat workers from Asia.
GCC labour ministers and counterparts from Asia are to propose an action plan to protect the welfare of Asian workers, according to their Abu Dhabi Declaration.
The ministers have recommended the drawing up within three months of the plan aimed at "preventing illegal recruitment practices" both at the country of origin and in host countries.
The declaration also called for "promoting welfare and protection measures for contractual workers... and preventing their exploitation at origin and destination".
Emirati labour minister Ali Al-Kaabi said at the start of the ministerial meeting on Tuesday that "guest workers must be afforded the security that they will receive the benefits that they are entitled to".
According to Al-Kaabi, the UAE, where thousands of Asian workers have gone on strikes over past months, has worked hard to improve conditions.
The country has "taken several ([abour] protection measures... In the past two years, we have worked to improve the conditions of expatriate workers in fields including housing, health and wage protection", he said.
The UAE told delegates it would establish processing centres in labour-sending countries to end recruitment malpractice and the exploitation of workers by agents. Workers would be given orientation sessions to help build local knowledge, and have details of labour contracts fully explained at the centres.
The Abu Dhabi Labour Dialogue was the first of its kind to be held in a major labour-receiving country.
The meeting in the Emirati capital builds on the Asian Regional Consultative Process on Overseas Employment and Contractual Labour, known as the Colombo Process.
Set up in 2003, the Colombo Process groups Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam to initiate dialogue on overseas labour.
The six members of the GCC have a total population of 35 million people, around 13 million of whom are expatriates, mostly foreign labourers from Asian countries.
"We have agreed that Asian workers are contracted workers, not what some call immigrant workers," Al-Kaabi told reporters at the end of the ministerial meeting, stressing that those workers stay in the GCC for a limited period.
"This would preserve the demographic nature of the countries of the region," said Yousuf Abdulghani, the labour ministry assistant undersecretary, on Monday.
In October, Bahrain's labour minister Majeed Al-Alawi called for a six-year residency cap on foreign workers. But a GCC summit in December did not take up the proposal.
The booming economies of the GCC countries, which are reaping the benefits of record oil prices, remain however in dire need of cheap skilled and unskilled labour from the Asian subcontinent.
But they are facing increased competition from other countries in need of skilled Asian labour, according to a senior Sri Lankan delegate.
"When it comes to salaries, there are other countries looking for the same categories of skills... If well trained, they [workers] would not come to the GCC because of salaries," said Kingsley Ranwaka of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment.
Studies have suggested the gap between wages in the GCC and some robust Asian economies is closing fast, dampening the appeal of the Gulf market for skilled workers.
Meanwhile, GCC countries frequently come under fire from human rights organisations to improve working and living conditions.
On Sunday, New York-based Human Right Watch urged the meeting in Abu Dhabi to adopt measures to halt "widespread violations" of the rights of Asian expatriate workers.
The next Abu Dhabi Dialogue Ministerial Consultation is be held in 2010, the declaration said without specifying a location.