Launch of new coalition to improve respect of migrant workers’ rights in Gulf Cooperation Council countries

As the football World Cup in Qatar demonstrated, exploitation of migrant workers in the Gulf remains rampant and severe. In June 2024, Anti-Slavery International was proud to contribute to the launch of the Coalition on Labour Justice for Migrants in the Gulf. This Coalition, co-founded by Anti-Slavery International, Equidem, Global Labour Justice, International Domestic Federation and Solidarity Center was formed to tackle the severe exploitation of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, particularly Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.

Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council are heavily reliant on foreign labour, and there are an estimated 31 million economic migrants living there. This is roughly 18% of the world’s migrant workers, and most people are there on temporary work visas tied to their employers in a sponsorship system known as kafala.

The Kafala system is a sponsorship system through which certain countries – notably Gulf Cooperation Countries, and Jordan and Lebanon – manage migrants’ residence and employment visas.

This system requires a local employer to sponsor a migrant worker as an essential pre-requisite for them to be able to obtain a valid visa to live and work in the destination country. This creates a dependency of the worker on their employer, and it increases their vulnerability to modern slavery.

Workers may find it impossible to escape conditions of abuse as they cannot leave an employer without their authorisation and cannot file complaints against them without fear of retribution. Equally, if the employer fails to process or renew employees’ visas on time, it is the workers who are deemed responsible and at risk of detention and deportation.  

It is essential to remove this dependency of the worker on their employer, in order to improve working conditions and reduce the risks to modern slavery generated by the Kafala system. This should mean that migrant workers are empowered to independently terminate employment contracts and search for new jobs without their employer’s authorisation. Similarly, the responsibility for the renewal of their visas should be placed in the hands of the workers themselves.  

Globally, we know migration is much needed and positive for individuals, societies and economies, but its management must be rooted in human rights and dignity. The Gulf Coalition Council countries are set apart by having a high proportion of foreign workers to local workers. Migrant workers make up around 95% of the labour force in Qatar, almost 79% of the labour force in Kuwait and around 75% in Bahrain. They are mostly workers employed in the construction, hospitality and domestic work sectors on low wages, who have migrated from Asia and Africa.

Migrant workers face great risks of exploitation

Despite the crucial role that migrant workers play in these countries, they too often experience severe labour and human rights abuses, often resulting in situations of modern slavery. This has been well evidenced at recent high-profile events, like the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The labour reforms that these countries have undertaken over the past years have done little to effectively dismantle abusive labour systems. Shockingly, there are many cases where even the most basic human and labour rights are still denied in practice, as we see in reports monitoring countries like Qatar.

Migrant workers still lack access to information to protect themselves from exploitative recruitment agents who ask for high recruitment fees while promising falsely advertised jobs. As a result, workers often end up trapped in situations of forced labour and/or debt bondage – where they are tied to their debt and forced to pay it off.

Abusive employers and dishonest recruitment agents are rarely held accountable for the harm they cause. At the same time, migrant workers lack access to effective avenues to seek justice and receive remedy for the harm caused by their exploitation. This is due to various reasons, such as intimidation (often leveraging on the worker’s migration status), lack of freedom of movement and absence of adequate grievance mechanisms.

“A lot of things are being done at higher level, in board rooms, but it doesn’t get to the workers on the ground.” Geoffrey, Equidem Senior Investigator, said at the launch event of the Coalition.

Across these countries, there is legislation that limits or excludes migrant workers from fully enjoying freedom of association. Even when the right formally exists, such as in Bahrain, migrant workers often face significant barriers to making this a reality. Coming together to interact and organise among themselves is a foundational right for all workers, including migrant workers, and helps to achieve other labour rights. The denial of the exercise of freedom of association creates an enabling environment for abuses to take place, as workers have no avenues to safely denounce their suffering. It is only when workers have the power to denounce the violations of their rights and negotiate for better working conditions that risks to severe exploitation can be reduced. This has been clearly stressed in the most recent Trafficking in Person Report as well.

A logo for the Coalition on Labor Justice

How will the Coalition address these risks and support migrant workers?

We all want to enjoy decent working conditions and work in safety, and this must become a reality for migrant workers. They are the backbone of economies worldwide, often doing low-paid jobs that nationals refuse to do. Yet, their humanity and rights are often forgotten by governments and employers who treat them with a lack of respect and often as “disposable.” Like everyone else, migrant workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and their voices must be heard. By providing a platform to amplify migrant workers’ voices and exert international pressure on those in power, we can realise our vision: for migrant workers to be free from modern slavery everywhere, always.

The newly launched Coalition on Labour Justice for Migrants in the Gulf is set to achieve this. Its purpose is to expose injustices, hold businesses and governments accountable, and build a powerful movement to facilitate an empowered migrant workforce whose human rights are respected.

Labor Rights Groups Launch ‘Coalition on Labor Justice for Migrants in the Gulf’

GENEVA, June 5, 2024 – Leading labor rights organizations, migrant rights organizations, and independent trade unions today announced the launch of the Coalition on Labor Justice for Migrants in the Gulf, the first-ever global labor coalition to demand fundamental labor and human rights for the millions of migrant workers in the Gulf region. 

There are at least 31 million migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and with global south economies stressed by climate change, more can be expected. Even as they are integral to the functioning of economic and social life, these workers have almost no access to legal or governmental mechanisms to exercise their fundamental rights as workers – particularly those employed in domestic work. Civil society and trade unions in GCC countries also have very limited ability to advocate for the rights of migrant workers. 

This urgent labor rights crisis requires united, direct action and a number of organizations have come together to build a global solidarity coalition. Led by Global Labor Justice, Anti-Slavery International, Equidem, the International Domestic Workers Federation, and the Solidarity Center, the Coalition is calling for governments and employers to respect the fundamental human and labor rights of migrant workers in the GCC throughout their recruitment, migration, employment, and return home. At its official launch today, migrant workers shared their experiences and how they are fighting for their rights despite the obstacles to organizing they face. 

The Coalition is calling on NGOs, governments and global corporations to use their power in the global economy to demand GCC countries to respect the fundamental rights of migrant workers, including the right to form and join unions and collectively bargain for fair wages and conditions.    

The Coalition’s initial focus is on migrant workers employed in domestic work, hospitality, and construction sectors in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. Some of the cross-cutting issues workers face, documented by the Coalition, include workplace violence, unpaid wages, occupational safety risks due to the impacts of climate change, and exploitative recruitment practices in contexts where worker organizing is repressed, employers have impunity, and workers lack avenues to access justice.  

The legal reforms GCC countries have made are superficial and have not led to substantive  change for workers in practice. Workers employed in construction and hotels at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar reported significant violations to their fundamental labor rights without remedy. Kuwaiti law states that migrant domestic workers are entitled to one day off per week, yet over 55 percent of domestic workers reported not being allowed to leave the house on their day off, if they are even granted a day off at all. 

The Coalition is the first global labor group of its kind that brings together advocates across the GCC, origin countries, and supply chain countries in pursuit of labor justice for migrant workers. 

Bringing together workers, unions, and NGOs, the Coalition will generate transnational solidarity and global pressure to ensure that the needs, rights, and dignity of migrant workers are guaranteed and respected, from recruitment in countries of origin through employment in the GCC countries.

The Coalition will support workers in their fight for freedom of association, access to justice and remedy, freedom of movement, separation between immigration laws and labor laws, employer accountability, among other key demands. It will also stand in solidarity with the women migrant workers fighting against gender-based violence and harassment (GVBH). This year marks the 5 year anniversary of ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention and while significant progress has been made to fight GVBH, workers are still fighting for gender equality in the workplace. 

“Migrant workers are the backbone of so many sectors in the global economy, and in the Gulf region, this is particularly true. These workers are fighting for their rights despite legal and social systems that systematically try to deny them the right to organize and bargain for fair pay and dignity. Global Labor Justice is proud to be a part of this exciting transnational coalition that brings together powerful labor advocates to support these courageous workers and their organizations and ensure that migrant workers' labor and human rights are protected and respected across migration corridors," said Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, Executive Director of Global Labor Justice.

“Everyone deserves to be able to move freely and enjoy decent work. And we know that when migrant workers are treated with dignity and enjoy decent working conditions, everyone wins. That’s why we are thrilled to support the launch of this Coalition. Now is the time for change and to shift to a different model based on the respect of migrant workers’ rights. We call upon governments, international organizations, and businesses to step up and take the necessary actions to create a fairer labor system and eradicate the root causes that enable forced labor and human trafficking to exist,” said Jasmine O’Connor OBE, CEO of Anti-Slavery International.

"United, we will be able to address the International Domestic Workers’ Federation’s top priorities for migrant domestic workers in the region: eradicating the kafala system; ensuring access to justice; promoting freedom of association and freedom of movement; advocating for access to benefits and services; fostering social dialogue; and equal labor rights. The coalition is important to advocate for migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf because they don’t have unions, and they can be punished if they speak up. Especially domestic workers, who are isolated in the employers’ houses and need support from allies and labor activists to fight against kafala,” said Mary Ann Abunda, International Domestic Workers Federation Executive Committee member representing the MENA region and leader of the Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association (SKDWA).

"The Gulf is one of the engine rooms of the global economy. That engine is powered by migrant workers, many who have been forced to leave home because climate change has made life impossible. The collision course of environmental crisis and patterns of corporations putting profits over people has brought the global community to a pivotal moment for human rights.  One of the fiercest fronts of this fight is in the Gulf. Solidarity and the belief that the struggle for equality and dignity for all humanity must be fought together is one of the core tenets of Equidem’s founding principles. We are thrilled to join this unified coalition,” said Mustafa Qadri, CEO of Equidem.

"No worker should have to abandon their rights and dignity at the border. Yet they often face systems of exploitation and legal barriers to earning the wages they are promised and working in a healthy and safe environment. Their struggle is complicated because they are also denied freedom of association, specifically the opportunity to form the unions or worker organizations that could advocate on their behalf. This Coalition will support these workers' efforts and aspirations for fairness, recognition and respect," said Neha Misra, Global Lead for Migration and Forced Labor at the Solidarity Center. 


The Coalition on Labor Justice for Migrants in the Gulf is a newly formed coalition of international human and labor rights organizations, migrant rights organizations, and independent trade unions. It is calling for governments and employers to respect the agency of migrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to exercise their fundamental human and labor rights throughout recruitment, migration, employment, and return. 

Guided by international human rights and labour standards, the Coalition aims to do this by:

  • Gathering evidence from migrant workers through investigative research and focus groups;
  • Continuously engaging and consulting with migrant workers both in GCC countries and their countries of origin to ensure our actions are grounded in workers’ experiences, opinions and recommendations; and
  • Leveraging international and regional advocacy mechanisms to hold governments and employers accountable for the treatment of migrant workers.

Starting in three countries, we hope that any positive outcomes will have cascading effects on other countries.  Ensuring migrant workers are treated fairly and enjoy decent work means creating healthy and productive work environments that benefit all workers and employers alike. It would also be in the interest of host countries, and it has the potential to foster greater trust in and respect for host governments, ultimately resulting in attracting more skilled workers and foreign investments over the long term.

We are building a movement that advocates for long-lasting change, which is becoming more pressing in light of the challenges brought by issues like climate change, conflict and instability.

This work underscores the challenges that migrant workers face in the global economy. Only by working together can we achieve the change we need to see and make sure the rights and dignity of migrant workers are protected. The Coalition is actively seeking the support of other trade unions and grassroots and human rights organisations across the world to amplify its impact. It is also committed to holding constructive dialogue with international actors, such as the International Labour Organization, and governments in countries of origin and destination. We encourage anyone who is interested to get in touch.

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