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Gulf, Asia approve steps to protect foreign workers


Kuwait City - Gulf and Asian labor ministers agreed Thursday on a series of initiatives aimed at boosting protection and improving conditions of employment for millions of foreign workers in the Gulf, officials said.

The deal followed two days of talks between ministers from the 12 Asian labor-sending countries and the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which hosts at least 15 million workers, mostly Asian.

They welcomed a proposal by the International Labor Organization to assist in "preventing abuse in the recruitment process, protecting workers' rights, improving regulation and strengthening oversight of private recruitment," in a final statement of the end of the meeting.

The measures include initiatives and programs for wage protection, for speedier settlement of labor disputes, a skill development and testing program and a pre-departure orientation initiative, the Emirati labor ministry undersecretary for policies and strategy, Omar al-Nuaimi, told AFP.

The governments in the latest round of the so-called Abu Dhabi Dialogue, launched in the Emirati capital in 2008, negotiated "in a positive and responsible way for the benefit of workers," Nuaimi said.

"The issue of expatriate manpower cannot be effectively managed, and their protection and rights cannot be improved without a strong partnership between receiving and sending countries," he said.

The wage protection program obliges all GCC members to transfer salaries of workers to banks in order to ensure payment and easy monitoring.

A disputes settlement program is currently being implemented in Saudi Arabia, where around 10 million foreigners live, to ensure a swift and efficient legal system to help workers, Nuaimi said.

It will be expanded to other GCC states.

Kuwaiti Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Hind al-Subaih, however, said the much-criticized "kafala" sponsorship system was not raised during the conference.

The system restricts most workers from moving to a new job before their contracts end unless their employers agree, trapping many workers.

Labor management

Philippines Secretary of Labor and Employment Rosalinda Baldoz welcomed the initiatives but said that problems were still facing migrant workers in the Gulf and called for effective labor management mechanisms to protect them.

Ahead of the conference, GCC labor ministers agreed on minimum terms in the contracts of domestic staff to improve the widely criticized working conditions of over 2.4 million foreign maids.

The new contract entitles domestic workers to a weekly day off, annual leave and the right to live outside their employer's house, the director general of Kuwait's Public Manpower Authority, Jamal al-Dossari, told AFP.

It also limits the working day to eight hours.

The GCC, comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, has repeatedly come under strong criticism by international rights groups for alleged maltreatment of foreign workers, particularly domestic helpers.

Ninety international rights and labor groups called in a joint statement last Sunday for urgent action to protect migrant workers, especially maids in the Gulf.

Nuaimi however said abuse in the GCC states had been exaggerated by rights groups and that some of their reports were lacking objectivity. — Agence France-Presse
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