US slams Gulf laws restricting migrant workers


Mark Lagon, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said during a visit to Kuwait that the so-called sponsorship laws restrict the choice of migrant workers and their control over their own lives.



But he said his trip — which has also taken him to Bahrain, India, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — had been "encouraging" regarding efforts to combat human trafficking and ease the plight of foreign workers.



"There is clear increasing awareness of a problem, perhaps even an awareness that the countries need to work together to eliminate some things," Lagon told a news conference after visiting a new shelter in Kuwait for runaway maids.



He pointed in particular to the sponsorship laws which he said "confine the choice and the control of their lives over migrant workers."



The system, a set of regulations that limits workers’ movements and puts them at the mercy of their employers, is in place in all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states but is decried by rights bodies as akin to slavery.



Under the system, employers have the right to terminate foreign staff and prevent them from seeking other jobs in the same country unless they fulfill a set of tough conditions.



In June, the US State Department added Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar to its blacklist of countries trafficking in people, accusing them of mistreating foreign workers on whom they rely heavily for mainly menial labour.



Countries on the blacklist — which already includes OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia — could face sanctions, including the withholding by the United States of non-humanitarian, non-trade related aid.



Lagon said, however, that he was pleased with "encouraging steps" taken by Kuwait which include drafting a comprehensive law to combat human trafficking, a ban on the withholding of passports and the creation of the shelter.



The US official toured a new shelter south of Kuwait City where about 44 runaway Asian maids are being housed until their problems with their employers are resolved.



Ministry of social affairs and labour assistant undersecretary Jamal al-Dossari told reporters that the shelter, which can accommodate 50 women, was opened a week ago but is temporary.



He said the government is planning to build two permanent shelters, one for men and the other for women, with a combined capacity of 700 people.



The six members of the pro-Western GCC are home to a population of 35 million, about 13 million, or 37 percent, of whom are foreign workers and their families and who include more than two million domestic helpers.



Foreign workers in the Gulf remit about 30 billion dollars to their home countries each year, although more than half of them draw monthly salaries of less than 400 dollars. It added that the amendments were now in vigor effective Wednesday as most Arab League member states had approved them.


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