Urgent call for action on migrant worker deaths in the Gulf

New report reveals poor data, high-rate of unexplained deaths and a series of cumulative risks to health.

A coalition of organisations, including NGOs from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines, today issued a report on the deaths of low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf states, and called on their governments and those in the Gulf to urgently take steps to reduce the number of unnecessary migrant worker fatalities. 

The report, Vital Signs: The deaths of migrants in the Gulf, is the first of its kind to attempt to quantify and explain the deaths of migrant workers in the six states of the Gulf Cooperative Council, where approximately 30 million migrant workers account for more than 50% of the total population, and where migrant workers occupy the vast majority of the jobs in low-paid sectors such as construction, hospitality and domestic work. The report found that as many as 10,000 migrant workers from south and southeast Asia appear to die every year in the Gulf, with more than half of those deaths effectively unexplained. It found that government data on migrant worker deaths is fragmented, incomplete and inconsistent, that there are serious and systematic issues with the manner in which the Gulf states investigate migrant worker deaths, and that low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf are exposed to a series of cumulative risks to their health, including: heat and humidity; air pollution; overwork and abusive working conditions; poor occupational health and safety practices; psychosocial stress; hypertension; and chronic kidney disease.

“There are two obvious conclusions to be drawn from this report. Firstly, the data that is made available on this critical issue is extremely poor, and secondly, life as a low-paid migrant worker in the Gulf is not only harsh, it is extremely dangerous.” said Muhammad Shoaib, a spokesperson for Justice Project Pakistan. “The Gulf states can do more, and the governments that send their workers need to speak with one voice to ensure better protection for their nationals.” 

“Despite the Gulf states’ practical dependence on their migrant workforces and the bolstering impact migrant worker remittances have on the economies of their homelands, both origin and Gulf states have for too long paid inadequate attention to ensuring they return home in good health,” said Anurag Devkota, a lawyer from Nepal’s Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice. “As a result far too many do not return home at all, or do so in coffins or body bags.” 

Data

The report accessed data on migrant worker deaths from a wide range of sources, including data made publicly available by governments, data secured via right to information requests, and data from informal sources. The data is fragmented and incomplete, making analysis of the causes and circumstances of migrant workers’ death very challenging, but based on the data that is available, as many as 10,000 migrant workers from south and southeast Asia appear to die every year in the Gulf.  On the available evidence, more than half of migrant worker deaths are not explained, which is to say that deaths are certified without any reference to an underlying cause of death, instead using terms such as “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest”. The report concludes that the most likely reason for this high rate of unexplained deaths is that there are serious and systematic issues with the manner in which the Gulf states investigate migrant worker deaths. 

Risks to health

The report draws on the expertise of a wide range of experts and credible sources and outline how low-paid migrant workers are exposed to a series of cumulative risks to their health, including: heat and humidity; air pollution; abusive working conditions, and excessive working hours; poor occupational health and safety practices; long term psychosocial stress and serious mental health problems; hypertension; and chronic kidney disease. In addition, they often face serious problems in accessing healthcare, a problem that was exacerbated by the Covid19 pandemic. It also includes testimony from multiple interviews with the families of migrant workers who died in the GCC in the last five years and case studies of the deaths of workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines, which illustrate the real-life impacts of these risks on workers and their families.  

Government recommendations

The report outlined a series of simple steps that can and should be taken immediately to reduce the number of unnecessary deaths and to provide some measure of relief to the families left behind.

The governments of Gulf Cooperation Council States (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE) should:

  • Establish specialised teams of inspectors and medical examiners to ensure that all deaths of migrant workers are investigated and certified in accordance with international best practice. 
  • Commission independent investigations into the causes of migrant workers’ deaths and ensure that such investigations examine the possible role played by heat and humidity, overwork, air pollution, psychosocial stress, and workers’ ability to access health care.
  • Improve the quality of available data on mortality statistics for migrants. The data should be fully disaggregated by age, sex, occupation, nationality, date of death, and underlying cause of death to allow comparison across multiple categories. 
  • Introduce non-invasive and verbal autopsy procedures after consultation with experts. 
  • Make primary and emergency healthcare for low-paid migrant workers free of charge at the point of care, irrespective of workers’ immigration status or their possession of a health card.
  • Pass legislation to ensure that employers are required to provide outdoor workers with breaks of an appropriate duration, in cooled, shaded areas, when there is an occupational risk of heat stress; mandatory break times should take into account the environmental heat stress risks along with the exertional nature of the work being performed. 
  • Conduct studies into the prevalence of CKDu or early-stage kidney disease among low-paid migrant worker populations.

The governments of origin states should:

  • Make available all historical data on deaths of overseas workers, disaggregated by destination, occupation, age, gender, date of death and cause of death. This data should be available online and presented in a way that facilitates effective analysis by public health experts. It should be accompanied by accurate, detailed data on the numbers of nationals in each Gulf destination state. 
  • Ensure that all government ministries that collect and publish data on deaths of nationals overseas report to international standards (the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases).
  • Call on the Gulf states to: enhance investigation procedures for migrant worker deaths; commission independent investigations into the causes of migrant worker deaths; enhance legal protection from heat stress.
  • Strengthen the capacity of embassies to ensure that remains are returned in a timely fashion and to provide support to the families of the deceased, including in relation to cases where families are entitled to compensation. 
  • Ensure that the issue of the investigation of migrant worker deaths, protection from risks to migrant worker health, and migrant workers’ access to healthcare are on the agenda of regional processes such as the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and the Colombo Process.

The Vital Signs Partnership is a group of organisations working together to campaign for better protection for low-paid migrant workers in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The partnership includes the Center for Migrant Advocacy in the Philippines, the Centre for Indian Migrant Studies, the Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice in Nepal, Justice Project Pakistan, and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit in Bangladesh. Supporting organisations include Migrant-Rights.org, which documents migrant workers abuses within the GCC, and Migrant Forum Asia. The project is managed by FairSquare Projects, a non-profit human rights organisation based in London.

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Nobody knows the true figure for many migrant workers die in the Gulf, or the causes of their deaths. But available statistics indicate it is many thousands of people every year, a large majority of working age.

Vital Signs, which is being supported by Humanity United, will run from 2021 to 2023. Each year of the project will see the publication of a statistical report, examining key trends related to the deaths of migrant workers from five Asian origin countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Philippines – in the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The reports will make tailored recommendations to governments and others.

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