Human trafficking for labour exploitation is a global concern. In West Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council region, it is a particular worry given the scale of labour migration and the prevalence of opaque and exploitative regulatory systems. A new report on forced labour and human trafficking in the Middle East, based on research sponsored by the International Labour Organisation, attempts to quantify the scale of the problem. Not surprisingly, it makes for some disturbing reading. The report puts the estimated number of victims of forced labour in the region at 6,00,000. These numbers have a huge resonance for India, which accounts for a significant chunk of the labour force there. What emerges is the close relationship between human trafficking and labour migration, and how failures in labour migration governance systems are allowing trafficking to persist. In the region’s capital-rich economies, the rapid development of infrastructure has relied on the use of short-term labour immigration. An estimated 14 million migrant workers, originating mostly in Asia and Africa, were in the GCC states between 1975 and 2010.
In order to manage the influx, many countries in the region rely on kafala, or the sponsorship system, that creates an unequal power dynamic between employer and worker as it determines the latter’s terms of residence and employment. Today, this system governs the lives of most of the migrant workers, who cannot leave their employers. Thus, loopholes and deficits in labour law coverage reinforce underlying vulnerabilities. Even where legal redress is provided for under national law, and human trafficking is criminalised and punishable, there have been few prosecutions. In such a context, there is first of all a clear case to regulate and control the role of recruiting agencies that very often overlook the interests of migrants while pursuing their own agendas. The Gulf states need to get more serious about implementing labour protection measures, and giving all expatriate workers a better deal in wages, housing, and health. The 2008 Abu Dhabi Declaration was an acknowledgment of the issues that had piled up. It outlined a collaborative action plan to give a fair deal to workers. However, the recommendations that emerged, including that effective actions be initiated to root out illegal recruitment, and that more transparent policies and practices of recruitment and employment be promoted, remain largely a mirage. India should weave in these concerns while firming up the provisions of its new emigration bill and signing any new bilateral agreements with countries of the region.