Advancing social protection for migrant workers in the GCC countries: New ambition emerges from discussion at the Global Forum for Migration and Development Summit

Officials, experts and partners participated in ILO-led conversation exploring pathways toward the progressive extension of social protection to migrant workers in the Gulf region.

Press release | 01 February 2024
© Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD)/Jean-Luc Auboeuf
Geneva, Switzerland (ILO News) – The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Executive Bureau of the Council of Ministers of Labour and Ministers of Social Affairs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ran an event on the landscape and trends of social protection for migrant workers in the Gulf Countries on the side-lines of the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) Summit, organized between 23-25 January 2024.

The event “Extending social protection to migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Promising practices and avenues for reform” was organized in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Migrant Forum in Asia.

During the event, high-level officials, experts and representatives of governments, workers, employers, and civil society along different migration corridors engaged in conversations on the pathways leading to the extension of social security rights in the Gulf region in line with international labour standards.

“The GCC region is ready to explore the means of development and modernization of social protection systems, starting from the understanding that social protection is a comprehensive system that cannot be fragmented,” said Director-General of the GCC Executive Bureau Mohammed bin Hassan Al Obaidli in the event’s opening remarks.

The ILO estimated that Arab States hosted 24.1 million migrant workers in 2019. The majority of them reside in the GCC countries, hailing from Asia, with significant numbers from other Arab nations and a growing presence from East Africa. Within this context, changes and efforts to better extend social protection to such a large workforce are progressively gaining momentum with local actors working towards this goal.

“Given the changing realities of the labour market, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and the environmental challenges the world is facing, the importance of social protection for migrant workers will only intensify and become increasingly critical over time,” said Shahra Razavi, Director of the ILO Social Protection Department. “The ILO strategy for extending social protection to migrant workers seeks to secure the rights of migrant workers and their families through a participatory approach grounded in labour standards and social dialogue.”
© Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD)/Jean-Luc Auboeuf
The ILO project “Extending Social Protection to Migrant Workers: Exploratory Research and Policy Dialogue in the GCC Countries”, whose findings were presented during the event, has examined the enhancement of social protection for migrants in the Gulf in accordance with international social security standards. The project achieved this by promoting research, informing social dialogue, and supporting reform efforts. Even though positive progress has been achieved, challenges of extending social protection to migrant workers across GCC countries remain evident.

“Positive reforms should be further fostered to ensure that the most vulnerable categories of workers are included.” said H.E Christian Frutiger, Head of Thematic Cooperation, Vice-Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation “We need to explore the best ways for public-private cooperation and complementarity to ensure the inclusion of all in social protection systems, as well as to ensure portability and exportability. In this context, I have the pleasure to announce that Switzerland will support a new initiative on social protection across the GCC and the South Asian corridor.”

Renewed reform efforts in the Gulf region

Several countries in the GCC bloc are taking legal steps to extend employment injury and unemployment insurance to their migrant workforce, broaden the coverage of their health insurance and rethink end-of service entitlements. Recent reforms in Oman have introduced a new unified social insurance system to cover sickness, maternity and paternity, and employment injury for both nationals and migrant workers employed within the private and public sector.

“Oman’s social protection reforms for migrant workers represent a significant leap towards a more just and equitable society,” said Hashim Mohamed Salim Al Hashimi, General Manager of Customer Service, Social Protection Fund, Sultanate of Oman. “Implementing these reforms can solidify Oman's position in the protection of migrant workers and contribute to a more prosperous future for all.”

In December 2023, Bahrain legislated the establishment of a national provident fund to administer end-of-service indemnities (EOSI) benefits for migrant workers, to be managed by the same public institution responsible for social security for nationals. The UAE also announced in October 2023 an optional pension scheme to replace the EOSI system for employees in the private sector and free zone, which followed the recent launch of a mandatory unemployment insurance scheme. To accompany the regional momentum, GCC Executive Bureau of Labour Ministries has actively facilitated dialogues between Ministries of Labour, workers and employers from all GCC countries.

“The reforms in Oman are good news for migrant workers. There is no doubt that the direction in the GCC now is to extend social protection for all”, commented Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Wood Workers International. “We aim to work on more effective mechanisms, through cooperation, and participation with trade unions and migrant workers”.

Murtaza Khan, Managing Partner for Middle East and Africa at Fragomen, a leading firm providing immigration services worldwide, added that “these recent social protection reforms will undoubtedly contribute to the overall objectives of economic growth and diversification in the GCC countries. In order to successfully attract and retain the right talent, destination countries must have the appropriate level of protection in place”.

The prominent role of origin countries in advancing the social protection agenda

Historically, workers in the GCC were initially recruited from other Arab countries. A shift started in the 1970s, with recruitment increasingly bringing workforce to the region from South Asia, mostly due to the lower labour costs offered. Today, the majority of the migrant workers active in the GCC hail from South and Southeast Asia.

“Our central focus lies in negotiating treaties, accords, compacts, and other instruments related to labour migration,” said Mario Tan Zinampan, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Cooperation, Department of Migrant Workers, Manila, Philippines. “This pivotal function forms the bedrock of our commitment to providing comprehensive social protection for overseas Filipino workers, extending beyond the GCC countries to encompass the entire world.”

Sabelo Mbokazi, Head of Labour, Employment and Migration at the African Union Commission also stressed on the importance of finding sustainable solutions based on dialogue among stakeholders to scale up social protection coverage for African migrant workers in the GCC region. In recent years, more workers started migrating to the GCC bloc from African countries, namely Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. “This is a call to the African Union member states and GCC countries to build an appropriate rights-based social protection systems that are comprehensive, adequate, sustainable, and inclusive for all workers,” he said. “These principles should be reflected in the development of bilateral agreements, facilitating equal access of migrant workers and their families to social protection, as well as the acquisition and maintenance of rights throughout the process.”
© Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD)/Jean-Luc Auboeuf
Governments, employers, workers’ organizations, diplomatic missions, and civil society all have crucial roles to play in ensuring effective, maintained, and improved access to social protection for migrant workers in the GCC. Tripartite dialogue between state actors, employers, and workers is identified as key to strengthening platforms for effective social protection. Understanding the views and preferences of migrant workers is crucial in designing policies and agreements that meet their needs.

The ILO is committed to supporting GCC countries on their journey to improving the protection of workers, providing policy advice, technical support, knowledge management, and dissemination, as well as facilitating South-South and triangular exchanges as part of the new initiative funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

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Find here relevant ILO publications:
Extending Social Protection to Migrant Workers: Exploratory Research and Policy Dialogue in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries.
Social protection for migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries: A regional mapping of provisions on paper and in practice.
Review of National Social Protection Legislation and Legal Frameworks for Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries.
Reforming end-of-service indemnity for migrant workers in Member States of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).
Access to social protection for Nepalese migrant workers in countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC).

For further information, please contact Luca Pellerano, Senior Social Protection Specialist (pellerano@ilo.org) and Lea Bou Khater, Social Protection Technical Officer (boukhater@ilo.org).