This study sheds light on the situation of trafficked adult workers in the Middle East, both women and men. It analyses the complex processes by which vulnerable migrant workers are tricked and trapped into forced labour in various types of work in the region, and the constraints that prevent them from leaving. It also examines the responses to human trafficking put in place by national governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, and other key stakeholders, and makes recommendations as to how the effectiveness of their actions might be enhanced in the future.
The ILO estimated in 2012 that 20.9 million people across the world are victims of forced labour at any given point in time. Of these, 68 per cent are victims of forced labour exploitation in the private economy, 22 per cent are victims of forced sexual exploitation and the remaining 10 per cent are forced to work by the state. In the Middle East, the ILO calculated that there are some 600,000 forced labour victims and that 3.4 in every 1,000 of the region’s inhabitants are compelled to work against their free choice. Despite a lack of hard data on the precise scale and nature of the problem, increasing numbers of governments, social partners and civil society actors in the region have become engaged in tackling forced labour and human trafficking in recent years, whether from a legal, policy or service delivery standpoint.
In an effort to fill gaps in understanding of human trafficking in the Middle East, the ILO embarked on a qualitative research project from June 2011 to December 2012, in order to map the processes of human trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation, and to document national efforts to combat it. In total, 653 individuals (372 men and 281 women) were interviewed for the study, of whom 354 were migrant workers and 299 were key informants. Of the workers interviewed, 266 were assessed to be in a situation of trafficking and forced labour, on the basis of specific indicators, namely recruitment by deception, work and life under duress, and inability to leave the employer. While this proportion cannot be extrapolated at the regional level (as the survey sample was not selected randomly), it serves to demonstrate that migrant workers in the region are at risk of trafficking and forced labour. The various processes documented in the study are based on a careful analysis of the data collected, mainly in four destination countries: Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE. Testimonies from migrant workers and national stakeholders serve to illustrate the harsh realities often faced by unprotected workers.
Low-skilled migrant workers are the most vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labour in the Middle East. Their precise motivations for migrating may vary, yet all share a desire to better provide for themselves and their families at home, by securing work and incomes that simply do not exist in their countries of origin. Victims of trafficking usually have limited financial resources, incur debt and are poorly educated. At the same time, many are resilient and courageous women and men, who are aware of the possible risks of exploitation but, impelled by the lack of viable job opportunities at home and the pressing needs of their families, have nevertheless made their individual decisions to travel abroad in search of work.
Although not all the trafficking processes described in the study are found in all the countries examined, striking similarities exist. The reliance on the kafala (sponsorship) system is inherently problematic, as it creates an unequal power dynamic between the employer and the worker. Deficits in labour law coverage reinforce the underlying vulnerabilities of migrant workers in domestic servitude, in the entertainment industry and in the agricultural sector. Significant gaps in national legislation restrict the ability of migrant workers to organize, to terminate their employment contracts and to change employer. Even where access to legal redress is provided under national law, and human trafficking is criminalized and punishable, there have been few prosecutions and convictions. The lack of strategic litigation against employers and private employment agents who violate the laws means there is little to deter others from confining migrant workers in exploitative situations against their will.
The characteristics of the three processes of human trafficking for domestic work identified and described in this study are closely related to the specificities of this occupational group. The isolation of domestic workers in private homes, which are not inspected by labour inspectors or social workers, and their very limited opportunities to move outside the household, heighten their vulnerability to exploitation. Employers justify the retention of passports and confinement in the home on the basis of the kafala system, which gives them legal responsibility for the residency and employment of their domestic workers. Their sense of entitlement over the worker is heightened by the significant cash outlay they have made to recruit him or her from another country. In the countries of the Middle East, some of which lack affordable public provision for the care of children and the elderly, even families with very limited financial means are left with little choice but to hire external help. The consequence for the unsuspecting migrant domestic worker can be exploitation at the hands of the employer household.
In the entertainment industry, four processes of human trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation were identified, with variations between countries depending on the type of entertainment industry and the work permit systems applicable. As commercial sex work is illegal in the region, workers in the entertainment industry who are coerced into sexual relationships with clients face the real possibility of being detained and deported. The very notion of coercion in this industry was a controversial issue among key informants. Nonetheless, there are striking similarities in the mechanisms reportedly used to coerce identified victims, including physical confinement, non-payment for services, withholding of wages and manipulation of debt. Owners and managers of entertainment establishments, and sex brokers (pimps), do not hesitate to use threats of denunciation to the authorities and family repudiation, and actual psychological, physical and sexual violence, to intimidate their victims. The impossibility of leaving the exploiter is entrenched by the fact that women known to have engaged in sex work have limited opportunities to secure income by other means.
Human trafficking practices were uncovered in various other occupational sectors, including construction, manufacturing, seafaring and agriculture. These sectors rely heavily on a predominantly male migrant workforce, thus illustrating the particular vulnerabilities faced by men which are often overlooked when the focus is exclusively on trafficking of women and girls. A total of four processes broadly depict the situation that migrant workers can be confined to in these sectors. They involve deceptive recruitment about the nature of the job, the working and living conditions, as well as the existence of the job in the destination countries. For instance, interviews with workers in the maritime industry revealed deceptive practices related to living and working conditions. Some of those hired as seafarers are paid either late or not at all, have to work forced overtime and endure poor living conditions.
There have also been cases of animal herders, sent by their employers out into the scorching desert heat, who are deceived not just about their working and living conditions, but about the job itself; many believed they were being recruited as drivers and gardeners, only to find that was not at all their employers’ real intention. These migrant workers cannot leave their employers, due to the kafala system, which severely constrains the mobility of workers. Employers also prevent their employees from leaving by requiring them to pay high fees for their release, withholding their wages as well as personal documents.
Small and medium-sized companies and individual employers in the construction and agricultural sectors tend to hire workers who are already in the country but with irregular migration status, so as to avoid paying the costs of recruitment and travel from countries of origin. Migrant workers often find themselves in this “informal” labour market through no fault of their own. There is a prevailing practice of kafeels (“sponsors”) recruiting foreign workers for non-existent jobs. Such fraudulent sponsors generate sizeable profits by auctioning off the visas of these workers to the highest bidder, while the workers themselves are stranded in the destination country, often in debt, with no job, and forced to look for irregular work. Private employment agencies also profit by illegally charging fees to both workers and employers. Ultimately, these workers are left in very precarious working and living situations, and have limited recourse to support mechanisms and justice. They too are constrained by the kafala system, and have difficulty escaping exploitative situations.
Governments, social partners and other key stakeholders in the region have shown a commitment to respond to the multiple forms and processes of human trafficking. Most countries in the Middle East have passed specific antitrafficking legislation, thereby providing for the prosecution of perpetrators of the crime. Several countries have established institutions that foster inter-ministerial coordination to combat the phenomenon. Recent training programmes on the identification of trafficking victims have contributed to greater awareness of the problem and how to detect and respond to it in practice. Bilateral agreements concluded between workers’ organizations in countries of origin and destination commit them to work together towards the protection of migrant workers. Civil society actors have mobilized to provide direct relief and legal support services to those in distress.
There is thus a clear and growing momentum in the fight against the crime of human trafficking in the Middle East. At the same time, it is important to broaden the prism through which human trafficking is seen, recognizing the close relationship between human trafficking and labour migration, and the role that failures in current labour migration governance systems play in allowing human trafficking to persist in the region. The ILO’s Decent Work agenda can provide an effective and comprehensive framework through which to address human trafficking, encompassing job creation and sustainable livelihoods; guarantees of fundamental rights at work, including freedom of association for all workers; the extension of social protection; and the promotion of social dialogue. On this foundation, it will be possible for all regional stakeholders to work together to build a more just and stable social and economic system, to the benefit of both nationals and migrant workers.
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