Extending Social Protection to Migrant Workers: Exploratory Research and Policy Dialogue in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries

Advancing the agenda of extending social protection to migrants in GCC countries by increasing knowledge of existing coverage gaps, facilitating dialogue between stakeholders in countries of origin and destination, and providing technical assistance to ongoing policy reforms.

Migrant workers play a key role in the labour markets of GCC countries, where they make up the vast proportion of private sector employment. The ILO estimated that Arab States hosted 24.1 million migrant workers in 2019. Most migrant workers in the GCC countries are from Asia, with sizeable numbers from other Arab countries, and increasingly from East Africa.

Labour migration has proven to be beneficial to both countries of origin and destination, as it provides jobs and employment opportunities for millions of workers and contributes to economic growth in destination and origin countries. Nevertheless, migrant workers in the Gulf countries face important gaps in relation to labour protection, as well as fundamental rights at work. This is coupled with limited access to social protection.

Social protection provisions for migrant workers in the Gulf countries are characterized by important gaps, shaped by the legacy of the sponsorship system, the short-term migration paradigm, and the duality of provisions between national and migrant workers. Migrant workers tend to be principally covered through employer-liability mechanisms. Long-term benefits covering risks of old-age, disability and unemployment are almost entirely unaddressed, as well as the rights of family members. Domestic workers, migrant workers in an irregular situation and those working in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable and lack access to basic forms of social protection.

Why extend social protection to migrant workers in the GCC?

Development gains from labour migration and the protection of the rights of migrant workers are inseparable. Migrant workers contribute significantly to promoting development and reducing poverty in their countries of origin as well as to supporting the economic activity of the destination countries. Nonetheless, the development benefits of labour migration should not be at the expense of the protection of migrant workers.
The pandemic has amplified the importance of extending social protection to migrant workers, given the benefits to individuals and their families, communities, and societies, as well as to economic growth, sustainable development, and social cohesion. There is now widespread acceptance that comprehensive social protection systems serve as social and economic stabilizers and can support recovery and build resilience in case of future crises.

A standards-driven approach

Social security is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and is at the heart of the ILO’s mandate to promote “the extension of social security measures to provide basic income to all in need of such protection and comprehensive medical care”. To fulfil this mandate, the ILO has developed a comprehensive body of standards aimed at guaranteeing the social security rights of all workers, including migrant workers, based on the overarching principle of equality of treatment and non-discrimination.

International labour standards provide guidance on how to extend social protection to migrant workers and establish core social security principles:

Equality of treatment between national and non-nationals whereby migrants have the same social security rights and obligations as nationals in the destination country;
Determination of the applicable legislation to ensure that the social security of a migrant worker is governed at any time by the legislation of one country only;
Maintenance of acquired rights and payment of benefits abroad whereby any acquired right should be guaranteed to the migrant worker in one territory even if it has been acquired in another;
Maintenance of rights in the course of acquisition whereby the completion of a benefit-related qualifying period should account for periods served in each country;
Mutual administrative assistance ensures the coordination and the data and information exchange required for the implementation of social security agreements.

Read more on ILO social security standards for migrant workers here:

New momentum for reforms in the GCC

While the extension of social protection to migrant workers was already a rising issue on the agenda in the GCC region, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted its urgency. The limited effectiveness of social protection systems was acutely felt during the pandemic, leaving many migrant workers highly exposed. Employers have also faced the financial consequences of social protection approaches that are not based on collective financing.

As countries in the region have once more realized the social and economic cost of uneven social protection systems, new avenues are emerging across the GCC region to extend social protection to migrant workers both in legislation and in practice.

New developments include:
Ongoing reforms of social health protection mechanisms for migrant workers.
Expansion of short-term social insurance benefits to private sector workers, including migrant workers under national systems, for example in relation to employment injury insurance, unemployment, sickness and maternity.
Efforts to ensure better compliance with end-of-service benefits systems, including through the establishment of national funds.

Stronger dialogue between countries of origin and destinations, a deeper assessment of workers and employers’ preferences for reforms, and the full consideration of barriers for effective enjoyment of social protection benefits are key elements to advance the agenda.

A new emerging evidence base

The ILO has supported the development of new evidence-based research on the extension of social protection to migrant workers in the GCC:

Activities and News

Project summary and components

The overall objective of the project is to promote the extension of social protection for migrants in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in accordance with international social security standards, by promoting research, informing social dialogue and supporting reform efforts.

The project operates along three main axes:
  • regional and national assessments of social protection provisions for migrant workers in the GCC countries;
  • country level analysis of barriers to access to social protection for migrant workers and policy dialogue on opportunities for reform, including countries of origin and destination; 
  • technical assistance and support to reform efforts at country level.

The project is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Contacts: Lea Bou Khater: boukhater@ilo.org; Luca Pellerano: pellerano@ilo.org; Ryszard Cholewinski: cholewinski@ilo.org