World Day for Safety and Health at Work

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28th April 2022

In celebration of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (WDSH), the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) emphasises the importance of adequate safety and health regulations at work, particularly in GCC countries, to protect migrant labourers from injuries and prevent work-related deaths. 

April 28 is commemorated annually as the World Day of Safety and Health at Work. According to the United Nations, this day “promotes the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases globally”. It raises awareness about these universal issues and promotes how a safe and healthy working environment can be created and achieved, in order to reduce the number of labour injuries and deaths. 

Advocating for the prevention of work-related accidents and highlighting the importance of creating a safe and healthy workplace is essential in GCC countries, where a cycle of abuse against migrant workers continues. These abuses are perpetuated by the current kafala system, in addition to the poor working conditions and harsh environment.

Through the sponsorship-based kafala system, the employer becomes the sponsor of the migrant worker, allowing him to legally work and stay in the country.  During his stay, the migrant worker is deprived of his documents, such as a visa and residence permit, which are held by the sponsor. This dependence on the employer results in a power imbalance between sponsors and  migrant workers, with the former having the upper hand. For example, employers are legally allowed to cancel residence permits and file charges against the workers for leaving their job without the employer’s permission, thus increasing the risk of the workers being deported. In other words, this unequal relationship has led to employers abusing their ‘power’ over migrant workers, through labour exploitation and withholding their wages. 

Besides the abusive kafala system, the environment and working conditions of migrant workers are detrimental to their safety and health. According to the Vital Signs report, there are around 30 million migrant workers in this region of which the majority work in low-paid sectors, making them more susceptible to safety and health issues, especially when they are working outdoors, such as on construction sites. Faced with a harsh climate, migrant workers have suffered from the heat and humidity as they often have to do physically strenuous work during the day without proper protection and with temperatures reaching up to 40°C. The GCC countries have no adequate laws to protect these migrant workers from the environmental risks that come with outdoor jobs. Despite each country imposing a blanket ban that ‘prohibits’ migrant workers from working certain hours of the day during summer, its efficacy can be questioned as it is not always respected by employers. 

Despite attempts to reform the labour laws for migrant workers in the past and the international media’s criticism of the systematic abuse and exploitation that migrants suffer, the cycle of abuse and lack of adequate safety and health regulations in the region continue to this day. For example, in the construction of the infrastructure for the World Cup Tournament 2022 in Qatar, migrant workers were exploited and exposed to forced labour.  Moreover, the employers of the migrant workers also failed to renew their residence permits, which made them more prone to deportation. 

Hence, the kafala system and the poor working conditions and environment, are the main factors that perpetuate the cycle of abuse that most migrant workers face in the GCC countries. This is why the ECDHR emphasises the importance of commemorating WDSH, particularly in the context of the abuse migrant labourers suffer in the region. In conclusion, the ECDHR supports the WDSH’s aim to promote adequate safety and health regulations at work, particularly for migrant workers in the GCC countries.