Out of the shadows

Our new columnist Rosebell Kagumire illustrates the dangers faced by migrant workers in the Gulf States. 

Construction workers wait for a bus after a shift on Al-Adaid Street in West Bay. Doha, Qatar, February 1, 2014
Credit: Alex Sergeev

When taking a flight with a regional airline on the continent, it’s hard not to miss the queues of young women in uniform headed to the Middle East. For many of them, the first time they left their county or village was to process the passport that enabled them onto this journey.

Thousands of women head to the region every year, mostly to become domestic workers. Around 15 per cent of all migrants and refugees worldwide are in Arab countries, and almost 75 per cent of these are in the states that make up the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

I’ve had many brief conversations with such women. Often they know very little about the places to which they are headed. Their job placement and conditions might have been negotiated by one of the many unscrupulous labour companies operated largely by the political ruling class. The majority are between the ages of 18 and 25, and desperate to escape economic hardship.

The images of these women on planes is of course not as dramatic as those showing African migrants traversing the Sahel to take boats on the Mediterranean to Europe, with many never making it. But the mass migration to Arab countries – and the conditions people experience when they get there – remain a major issue. The violations faced in destination countries rarely come to light until the workers are being repatriated – in poor health or dead.

The conditions experienced by migrant workers made international headlines when Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, and rightly so. But over the years since, so little has changed. Public pressure may have forced some reforms, but they are a drop in the ocean. The system requires a total overhaul, and is still skewed against migrants exercising the limited rights that, on paper, they are granted.

Migrant domestic workers in the GCC earn less than half of the average wage, experience long and unpredictable working hours, and remain one of the least protected groups of workers under national labour legislations. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has described serious abuses of workers in Qatar, including wage theft, health and safety risks, workplace deaths, illegal recruitment fees, racial and gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, these practices only intensified. At its onset in 2020, many African migrant workers, particularly women, were thrown out to the streets, stereotyped and targeted as ‘disease carriers’. Thousands were stranded thanks to speedily introduced air travel restrictions. The multiple global economic crises – inflation, food and job insecurity – are only making the situation worse. Desperate migration is bound to increase.

The mass escape is slowly getting attention in public discourse and parliaments on the continent. In July, Uganda’s government revealed that as many as 2,000 young women were leaving the country monthly.

In Africa, national and regional strategies are needed both to tackle desperate migration and to increase the pressure for better working conditions in destination countries. The World Cup may be over, but the need to push for systematic changes to migration policies in Qatar and the Gulf states is not.

Rosebell Kagumire is a pan-African feminist writer and activist with expertise in African women’s liberation, racial and gender equality, peace and security.