DUBAI (Reuters) – Officials from more than 20 labor importing and exporting countries meet in Abu Dhabi on Sunday to discuss the regulation of the market for Asian migrants amid growing calls for their protection from abuse.
Asian workers fill all sorts of low-paid construction, domestic, retail, manufacturing and agricultural jobs across the Gulf, often outnumbering the nationals.
The issue of migrant workers’ rights has come into focus in recent months as the weak dollar means the real value of their remittances have fallen. Most are paid in dollar-linked Gulf currencies and the issue has led to strikes and riots in Dubai.
The two-day meeting organized with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) includes the 10 Asian labor-exporting countries that meet under what is known as the Colombo Process to discuss their contract migrant workers.
It is the first time that a labor-receiving country hosts the meeting which will bring together fellow Gulf Arab labor importers as well as Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.
Human Rights Watch urged officials in a statement to discuss “widespread violations of workers’ rights”, saying abuses include unpaid wages, confiscation of passports, deception on recruitment and, in some cases, physical violence.
“It is encouraging that representatives from countries that send and receive migrant workers will sit at the same table,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
“To make the talks successful, officials must tackle badly flawed immigration policies and gaps in labor laws that expose migrants to abuse.”
Gulf Arab countries, which have small national populations, have for decades relied on temporary migrant workers to fill jobs created by their rapid oil-fuelled growth.
Women from South Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines work as maids and nannies for families across the Middle East and wealthy Asian states.
South Asian workers, mainly from India and Pakistan, form the backbone of Dubai’s construction boom, which has seen it build palm-shaped islands and the world’s tallest sky-scraper.
Talks will focus on labor rights, protection of remittances in countries of origin and destination and multilateral cooperation on contract cycles and labor market information.
Human Rights Watch urged officials to establish equal protection for domestic workers under labor laws and reform of the sponsorship system that makes it difficult for workers to change jobs or leave the country without consent. It also urged countries of origin to monitor recruitment agencies and labor-receiving states to give migrants access to justice.