Business, Finance & Economics

Conditions for Migrant Workers in the Middle East

Kathleen Newland, the co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC, discusses the conditions for migrant workers in the Middle East and beyond.

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Marco Werman: Israel isn’t the only country in the Middle East that relies on foreign temporary workers. In fact temporary work VISAS are common around the world. Kathleen Newland is co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC, and directs their programs on migrants, migration, and development in comprehensive protection for refugees. Kathleen, we just heard about some of the rules in Israel. But give us some context here. What are the rules for like migrant workers in other countries in the Middle East? Are migrant workers facing the same kinds of issues they face in Israel.

Kathleen Newland: Yes they are. In fact, it’s very common in the Gulf Arab states for there to be pretty stringent restrictions on migrants behavior. They’re required to have medical examinations to show, not only that they are not carrying any infectious diseases, but that the women aren’t pregnant. So this concern about having people come in, who are A, not able to work and B may produce children, is pretty common throughout the region.

Werman: Right.

Newland: It’s extreme in the Arab states. Some of these countries have 70 or 80 percent of their resident populations are migrant workers.

Werman: That’s enormous.

Newland: So, yeah, it’s enormous. These are countries with a lot of wealth and very small populations, so they have relied on migrant workers to literally build their societies and to run significant parts of them.

Werman: And how can they expect, with 70 to 80 percent of their population being migrant workers, how can they expect that sizable population to just leave at some point?

Newland: Well, the remarkable thing is that most of them do. One of the ways that these governments have tried to assure that is by contracting with workers who come form very far away and different cultures. The majority are short terms contractor workers from places like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, and they are visibly different. They are from a different culture, so there is very little chance of them assimilating.

Werman: So a strategy of going for workers from the most distant foreign lands possible so they don’t feel comfortable and do have to go home a some point. Given that, you know, the woman that we just heard about was from the Philippines and apparently 200,000 Filipino workers go each year to the United Arab Emirates to work. What can the conditions be like for them there?

Newland: Well they are pretty stringent. There’s absolutely no question that the migrant workers are there to earn money. And there is no other attraction. The working conditions are pretty harsh. The people are supposed to be guaranteed one day of rest per week, but that doesn’t always work out by any means. You know, they’re not supposed to work more than 10 hours per day but many are compelled to. And, there are lots of problems because these people are essentially powerless within the society where they are working.

Werman: Kathleen Newland, when you look at other regions of the world where people do go for temporary employment, do you find the same kinds of issues arising as what we’ve been talking about, or does it really depend on what country and what region they are in?

Newland: It depends on the country and the region. I think the conditions in the MIddle East are probably the harshest that you would find just about anywhere, and I would have to say that until the introduction of this recent bill that’s putting additional restrictions on migrant workers in Israel. Israel was one of the better destinations for migrant workers in the Middle East, but migrant workers in Europe, for example, are still discriminated against, are still exploited. But, I would say they have more recourse thorough the legal system, and they probably have more allies, like human rights groups, trying to look after their welfare a bit. I think the European and the United States also don’t have the kind of restrictions on peoples social lives, and certainly not on their ability to, for example, practice their religions. You know, it’s an offense in Saudi Arabia to own a bible or to drink alcohol, and migrant workers can be expelled for that. You don’t find those kind of restrictions in Europe or North America or Australia, which are the sort of main receiving countries for migrant workers.

Werman: We’ve been talking about the policies and laws of individual countries, but there are moves apparently to put international agreements into place that try to regulate conditions for migrant workers. Is that what’s coming next?

Newland: There are a number of attempts to implement both regional and international treaties, or at least agreements, that would protect migrant workers better. But it’s been extremely difficult to get sovereign governments to agree to these, so migrant workers remain very vulnerable, and, though a universal standard would be the ideal. It’s clearly going to be very difficult to get there.

Werman: Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute. Thanks very much indeed.

Newland: It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

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During the broadcast on June 17, 2011, this interview was featured alongside a report from Albert Sabaté about how a new Israeli law is affecting migrant workers. You can listen to the report here.