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Pandemic poses fresh challenges for vulnerable migrant workers in Middle East

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A woman views an exhibition of portraits of domestic workers on their day off on International Domestic Workers Day in Qatar. ILO/Hisham Ashraf

Amidst reports that many migrant workers in the Middle East are being made destitute, due to an economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN is calling on governments and employers to respect their rights, and show solidarity with their plight.

Thrown into the streets, locked in rooms, and forced to work without pay, recent media reporting has revealed the abuse and poor treatment that some migrant domestic workers in the Middle East have suffered, since the onset of the pandemic. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has confirmed that many of these workers, particularly those who have no employment contract, and live outside the household, have been severely impacted by the pandemic. 
Rszyard Cholewinski, senior migration specialist at the ILO’s Regional Office for Arab States, told UN News that the numbers of workers affected in the region is significant: more than 27 per cent of migrant domestic workers (3.16 million out of a global total of 11.5 million) are employed in Arab States, according to ILO estimates. 
Restricted lockdown

Many of them have lost their incomes and livelihoods, with employers telling them that their services are no longer needed, due to fears regarding the spread of COVID-19. As a result, they are struggling to pay for food and rent, and are relying on humanitarian assistance, and the support of community networks.

Most, however, live within the households of their employers. For these workers, says Mr. Cholewinski, working conditions are likely to have worsened: “they are being required to perform more tasks, particularly in relation to cleaning, and working longer hours with less time off”, he says. “They are also subject to greater restrictions on their mobility as families stay home, with the increase in teleworking and home-schooling during periods of lockdown”.

Workers in this region were already vulnerable to abuse, as domestic work is excluded from labour laws in many countries. In Arab States that favour the kafala system – which requires foreigners to obtain the permission of their employer if they want to change jobs or leave the country – there is, says Mr. Cholewinski, a serious imbalance in the worker-employer relationship, which makes migrant domestic workers particularly vulnerable to situations of forced labour.

Signs of progress

The UN has been working to improve conditions for migrant domestic workers during the pandemic, alongside governments, employers and worker organizations, and other partners, to better understand the situation of migrant domestic workers, who have become even less visible than before due to the lockdowns introduced by many governments in the region. 

In cases where migrant domestic workers have been deprived of incomes and livelihoods, the UN is working to ensure that all migrant workers, including domestic workers, are covered in the national responses to COVID-19. 

At a local level, says Mr. Cholewinski, there are some signs of improvement in the way workers are treated: “there has been some progress in dismantling the kafala system, to make it easier for domestic workers to terminate contracts and to change employers, particularly in cases of abuse”.

However, he notes that there is still a lot more that needs to be done at an international level: “the ILO is promoting ratification of its Domestic Workers Convention, which establishes the minimum level of treatment that should be afforded all domestic workers regardless of their nationality or immigration status. To date, it has not been ratified by any Middle Eastern countries”.

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Environment

New project to help 30 developing countries tackle marine litter scourge

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Litter is removed from a beach in Watamu in Kenya. UNEP/Duncan Moore

A UN-backed initiative aims to turn the tide on marine litter, in line with the global development goal on conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources. 

The GloLitter Partnerships Project will support  30 developing countries in preventing and reducing marine litter from the maritime transport and fisheries sectors, which includes plastic litter such as lost or discarded fishing gear. 

The project was launched on Thursday by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), with initial funding from Norway. 

Protecting oceans and livelihoods 

“Plastic litter has a devastating impact on marine life and human health”, said Manuel Barange, FAO’s Director of Fisheries and Aquaculture.  “This initiative is an important step in tackling the issue and will help protect the ocean ecosystem as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on it.” 

Protecting the marine environment is the objective of Sustainable Development Goal 14, part of the 2030 Agenda to create a more just and equitable future for all people and the planet. 

The GloLitter project will help countries apply best practices for the prevention and reduction of marine plastic litter, in an effort to safeguard the world’s coastal and marine resources. 

Actions will include encouraging fishing gear to be marked so that it can be traced if lost or discarded at sea. Another focus will be on the availability and adequacy of port reception facilities and their connection to national waste management systems.  

“Marine litter is a scourge on the oceans and on the planet”, said Jose Matheickal, Head of the IMO’s Department for Partnerships and Projects. “I am delighted that we have more than 30 countries committed to this initiative and working with IMO and FAO to address this issue.” 

Five regions represented 

The nations taking part in the GloLitter project are in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific. 

They will also receive technical assistance and training, as well as guidance documents and other tools to help enforce existing regulations. 

The project will promote compliance with relevant international instruments, including the Voluntary Guidelines for the Marking of Fishing Gear, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which contains regulations against discharging plastics into the sea.

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Development

Climate Finance: Climate Actions at Center of Development and Recovery

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) called access to climate finance a key priority for Asia and the Pacific as governments design and implement a green and resilient recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Speaking at the United Kingdom Climate and Development Ministerial—one of the premier events leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in November—ADB President Masatsugu Asakawa said expanding access to finance is critical if developing economies in Asia and the Pacific are to meet their Paris Agreement goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.

“We can no longer take a business-as-usual approach to climate change. We need to put ambitious climate actions at the center of development,” Mr. Asakawa said. “ADB is committed to supporting its developing member countries through finance, knowledge, and collaboration with other development partners, as they scale up climate actions and push for an ambitious outcome at COP 26 and beyond.”

ADB is using a three-pronged strategy to expand access to finance for its developing members as they step up their response to the impacts of climate change.

First, ADB has an ambitious corporate target to ensure 75% of the total number of its committed operations support climate change mitigation and adaptation by the end of the decade, with climate finance from ADB’s own resources to reach $80 billion cumulatively between 2019 and 2030. ADB has also adopted explicit climate targets under its Asian Development Fund (ADF), which provides grant financing to its poorest members. ADF 13, which covers the period of 2021–2024, will support climate mitigation and adaption in 35% of its operations by volume and 65% of its total number of projects by 2024.

Second, ADB is enhancing support for adaptation and resilience that goes beyond climate proofing physical infrastructure to promote strong integration of ecological, social, institutional, and financial aspects of resilience into ADB’s investments.

Third, ADB is increasing its focus on supporting the poorest and most vulnerable communities in its developing member countries by working with the United Kingdom, the Nordic Development Fund, and the Green Climate Fund on a community resilience program to scale up the quantity and quality of climate adaptation finance in support of local climate adaptation actions.

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Human Rights

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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