ILO Launches Flagship Study on Extending Social Protection to Migrant Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries

Press release | 30 November 2023
A migrant worker cuts through a metal rod at a construction site.©Apex Image/ILO

BEIRUT, Lebanon – On November 28, the ILO launched a trailblazing study on the social protection of migrant workers in the GCC countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The ILO estimated that Arab States hosted 24.1 million migrant workers in 2019. The majority of migrant workers in the GCC countries hail from Asia, with significant numbers from other Arab nations and a growing presence from East Africa. The Arab region boasts the world's highest proportion of migrants in the workforce.

The flagship report titled “Social Protection for Migrant Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries: A Regional Mapping of Provisions on Paper and in Practice ” was prepared by the ILO in collaboration with the ODI and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"Our primary goal is to extend social protection to migrant workers in accordance with international standards,” said Shahra Razavi, ILO Director of the Social Protection Department. “While progress has been made, challenges persist in extending social protection to migrant workers in the GCC. The regional mapping report we are launching today, provides a structured and comprehensive assessment of social protection provisions in law and practice, shedding light on existing barriers. It aims to foster informed dialogue across migration corridors, offering insights into potential legal and policy reforms.”

The study stems from the ILO regional project Extending Social Protection to Migrant Workers: Exploratory Research and Policy Dialogue in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which aims to establish a novel evidence base for this underexplored topic through exploratory research and policy dialogue.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for putting social protection at the centre of our work”, said Patricia Barandun, Head of Section Migration and Forced Displacement at the SDC. “It is crucial to focus on social protection while we continue working on decent work conditions and using the ILO's expertise in terms of setting the standards high. Promoting tripartite dialogue is important to continue to establish links between the countries of origin and the countries of destination, especially on topics of social protection.”

A high-level panel consisting of key experts and practitioners in migrant rights and social protection within the GCC took part in the virtual event. These include Shebib Abdullah Al-Busaidi, representative of the newly established Social Protection Fund in Oman, Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University in Qatar, Tanja Dedovic, Regional Specialist on Labour Mobility and Human Development at the IOM, and Steffen Hertog, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, Department of Government at the LSE.

The study highlights significant gaps in social protection provisions for migrant workers across GCC countries. These gaps can be especially attributed to factors such as the Kafala sponsorship system – which ties a worker's residence and employment status to a single employer, the short-term migration paradigm, and the dual nature of provisions between national and migrant workers. Particularly, domestic workers and those working in the so-called gig-economy, or in irregular situations, face vulnerability with limited access to basic social protection.

The report is the first of its kind to systematically assess the legal and effective access of migrant workers to nine areas of social protection, including medical, sickness, unemployment, injury, old-age, invalidity, family, maternity protection, and survivors' benefits. It identifies enablers and barriers to access, along with factors that have facilitated or hindered the extension of such coverage, incorporating an extensive review of the legal framework, existing literature, and key informant interviews across the region.

New avenues are emerging across the GCC to extend social protection to migrant workers, both in legislation and practice. Recent changes include ongoing reforms of social health protection mechanisms, expansion of short-term social insurance benefits to private sector workers–including migrants–and efforts to ensure better compliance with end-of-service benefits systems through the establishment of national provident funds. One positive case is represented by Oman, which recently adopted a comprehensive social protection law, with new improved provisions for migrant workers. Similar efforts are ongoing in Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.

“All workers, irrespective of their sector—be it private, public, or military—have been incorporated into the new system,” said Shebib Abdullah Al-Busaidi, from the Social Protection Fund in Oman. “Migrant workers will now access social insurance benefits in case sickness, maternity and employment injury. Plans are also in place for the future inclusion of domestic workers. The new Provident Fund's objective is not merely to offer end-of-service benefits but to facilitate pension salaries. Our aim is to establish bilateral agreements with different countries of origin within the next years”.

To build on such positive developments, but also cognisant of the significant remaining gaps with implementation of existing rights, the study recommends strengthening the regional governments’ engagement in such issues as they bear the primary responsibility for ensuring social protection for migrant workers, and action from diverse stakeholders, including employers, origin governments, recruitment agencies, civil society, academia, trade unions, and migrant workers.

“Social protection and broader labour rights in the GCC are interdependent,” said Steffen Hertog, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, Department of Government, LSE. “The report highlights the key labour rights dimension: the right of mobility between employers, moving away from the restrictive sponsorship system and the consideration of the broader implications of social welfare on labour market policies. Achieving uniformity in rights and related labour costs for both expatriates and nationals makes the employment landscape more accessible and attractive. Attaining a level playing field between foreign residents and nationals is crucial to reach this significant policy objective.”

During the online event, the ILO also launched an assessment of the “Social Protection for Nepalese Migrant Workers in the GCC.” Conducted between January and March 2023 in collaboration with ODI and the Nepal Institute for Social and Environmental Research (NISER), the study involved a phone survey with over a thousand Nepalese returnees who had previously worked in the GCC. Major employment sectors included construction, hotels and restaurants, and trade and repair services.

Three quarters of survey respondents reported that they were registered for health coverage while in the GCC. However, 45percent had to personally cover a portion of their healthcare expenses when required. Only 52 percent of respondents could consistently take sick leave when requested, and 42 percent did not receive their end-of-service indemnity before returning to Nepal at the end of their contract.

The study also highlights notable gender disparities, with Nepalese women, primarily employed in domestic work, experiencing lower levels of social protection coverage than men. In her intervention, Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at the CIRS at Georgetown University in Qatar, emphasized that “age-responsive social protection programs are essential, globally and for migrants in the Gulf. Women have different trajectories and migratory experiences to men and in the long term can face considerable challenges in social security and protection in later life”.

The ILO and partners plan to deepen engagement on this topic in the near future. “Based on this study, we are in conversation with our partners to design a new program on the social protection of migrant workers across the South Asian-Middle Eastern Corridor“, concluded Patricia Barandun.

The event was hosted by ODI in collaboration with the ILO and with support from the SDC.

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