MAP- Wage theft in the gulf


Hana Buhejji

Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)

18 January 2022

Siddiq Shehab arrived to the Gulf from his native Mangalore in South India in 1982, carrying an almost empty suitcase. Siddiq left everything behind and travelled to the Gulf to work for one of the largest contracting companies so he could save money for his marriage.

Two years later, Siddiq got married, but he returned to the Gulf where he stayed for 39 more years. He only saw his family for two months once every two years, as he had to stay in the Gulf and work, spending all what he makes to support his family and parents.

Siddiq, who worked as an electrical supervisor, never thought he would return home empty-handed after not receiving his salary for 18 consecutive months. With no choice, Siddiq left the Gulf for good in March 2021 with the contracting company owing him $48,900 in salary arrears and end-of-service benefits, burying his dream of securing a dignified life after retirement.

Siddiq and 18 of his colleagues – who make up the last remaining employees of a company that once had over 1,000 employees – have been receiving their salaries irregularly since 2017. The company had allowed them to live in its designated workers’ accommodation where they had to make ends meet $53 a month and rely on charity for food with minimal healthcare services access. On top of that, Siddiq, who had turned 70 years old, faced another dilemma when his residence permit expired in May 2019, thus putting him at risk of imprisonment and deportation since he has become an irregular migrant worker.

Siddiq’s and his colleagues’ stories shed light on the problem of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the Gulf countries who are deprived of their wages and their end-of-service benefits – a common violation committed by kafeels (Arabic for sponsor) and employers. Workers’ rights organizations describe this as “wage theft.” There are laws that regulate the relation between the employer and employees; however, they are full of loopholes that some employers exploit if they want to. Even though there are mechanisms to lodge complaints and litigation procedures to resolve disputes, there are various difficulties and obstacles that most of the time prevent migrant workers from resorting to them to preserve their rights.

By the time the residence permits of Siddiq’s 18 colleagues, who worked in the company for different periods of time that ranged between three and 38 years, ended, the company owed them money that ranged between $7,089 and $108,152 each. The total amount of money owed to them is $526,000 – an amount that is enough to construct a 500 square meters medium-sized villa in the Gulf. However, the large company, which implemented public and private sector projects worth hundreds of millions of dinars, never paid these dues.

“We faced challenges due to some parties’ rejecting the adoption of the term ‘wage theft’ as they preferred to use ‘unpaid wages.’ However, what is happening today is much more than simply not paying wages; it is systematic theft of the wages and other entitlements of millions of migrant workers who spent their lives serving the destination countries and contributing to their development. What is happening now is truly a major crime. It is a humanitarian crisis because we do not see the situation as it is, hence (we fail) to address it properly.”

William Gois, Regional Coordinator of Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA)

Rampant Phenomenon

According to the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s “contractual Relationship Improvement Initiative” document, which was prepared in August 2020, there are 1.2 million migrant workers whose wages have been delayed.

These workers constitute 8.3% of the total workforce in Saudi Arabia where 79% of this workforce is made up of migrant workers. This reflects the problem of “wage theft” in the Gulf. The workforce in Saudi Arabia constitutes about 50.2% of the total workforce in the Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia alone hosts 47.3% of the total number of migrant workers present in the Gulf.

It’s estimated that there are 24 million migrant workers in the Gulf countries, constituting 83.3% of the total workforce of the Gulf countries. Migrant workers constitute the majority of the workforce in Qatar (94.0%), the United Arab Emirates (92.5%), Kuwait (84.2%), Bahrain (79.4%) and Oman (78.4%).

Percentage of migrant workers in workforce in the Gulf countries

Arij_Wage-theft-in-the-gulf-foreign workers in GCC_2
Arij_Wage-theft-in-the-gulf-foreign workers in GCC

The document written within the framework of Vision 2030 initiatives, reveals the real magnitude of the problem, and aims to improve contractual relations between employers and employees based on international standards. In December 2020, Saudi Arabia signed the Protection of Wages Convention, 1949 (No. 95); hence becoming the only Gulf country to sign this convention that aims to protect wages of workers as much as possible so far.

The implementation of this convention requires fulfilling three main elements: efficient supervision, appropriate penalties, and means for compensating the victims.

key principles of Convention (No. 95)

Workers shall be free to dispose of their wages as they choose.

Wages must be paid in national currency.

In cases of partial payment in kind, the value should be fair and reasonable

No unlawful deductions are permitted (right to receive wages in full).

In cases of employer insolvency, wages shall enjoy a priority in the distribution of liquidated assets.

Regular payment of wages, including full and swift final settlement of all wages within a reasonable time, upon termination of employment.

In Bahrain, Minister of Labor and Social Development Jameel Humaidan said that 2,863 workers in 18 companies received irregular wages in 2018, adding that companies delayed wages payment for periods that ranged between two months and six months.

Twice a victim

In addition to legal migrant workers, who are theoretically protected by employment contracts but practically face the risk of “wage theft” due to employers’ exploitation and deception, there are hundreds of thousands of irregular migrant workers who are in fact the most vulnerable to “wage theft”. This category of migrant workers who work outside legal frameworks is called “wandering workers” or “free visa” workers.

Except for Saudi Arabia, there are no accurate numbers of irregular migrant workers in the Gulf and the data only shows the numbers of those whose residence permits have expired or whose residence permits were cancelled by their sponsors. The law views these workers as violators although they have not intentionally violated the laws and they have simply found themselves in this situation because renewing their residency permits is not possible except through a sponsor.

These workers’ situation becomes more dangerous if their sponsors lodge a complaint accusing them of “Horoob” (“absconding”). Those are the most fearful of getting caught regardless of why they escaped even if it’s due to abuse and violation of their rights. The penalty for absconding in Gulf countries is arrest and deportation. In Kuwait, for instance, these workers are also blacklisted and banned from re-entering the country for a certain number of years. In Saudi Arabia, these workers face being fined $13,000 and imprisonment for six months followed by deportation and a permanent ban from re-entering the country. Hence, these workers who face this accusation of “absconding” keep a low profile while working in secret, hence becoming more vulnerable to exploitation and “wage theft”.

A migrant workers’ rights activist, who requested to remain anonymous  said: “A form of irregular employment has emerged in the Gulf due to exploiting the sponsorship system to sell visas. Employers or ordinary individuals issue migrants visas as domestic workers, then, with the permission of the employer, allows them to take other jobs in exchange for payments that range between $3,200-$3,700 (every 2 year) and the worker usually pays the sponsor once every two years. Some workers willingly travel (to this destination country) fully aware of the situation as they need (to make a living) and are (often) promised by agents (who facilitate their travel) plenty of job opportunities in the Gulf. Sometimes, the sponsor does not renew the visa, and the worker does not have the capability to return home; hence he unwillingly ends up in a legal dilemma.”

A Kuwaiti lawyer, who requested to remain anonymous, said: “In Kuwait, workers are brought into the country to work for employers who are parties in contracts for governmental projects. For example, employers in the construction sector bring into the country 300 workers even though the project only needs 20 workers. The rest of the workers are then allowed to take other jobs either by paying the employers to do so or via ‘selling’ these workers’ visa to other companies.

Workers also face exploitation (in this case) because they cannot get another job unless the new employer has contracts with the government. Therefore, the worker cannot obtain a new work permit; hence he is forced to accept a wage that is less than what was agreed on with the recruiter since he needs to work. Workers are thus exploited because the company, which brought them into the country, did not abide by the contract that it recruited them through.”

Victims confined within houses

In addition to migrant workers who face the risk of “wage theft”, domestic workers, particularly females, also face similar risks. Domestic workers, who constitute 25% of the total migrant workforce in the Gulf, work in residences which are not inspected, and their work is also not governed by labor laws.

The only exception, however, in this regard is Bahrain which included domestic worker under 13 Articles of labor law in 2013. Although Gulf countries – except Oman – have set laws to protect migrant workers, a report by the author of this investigation with the title “Domestic Work: A Comparative Overview between Bahrain and the Rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries” showed that “these laws are still superficial when defining the rights of domestic workers and are governed by a social culture that fears granting this category of workers their full rights and equating them with the rights enumerated in these countries’ labor laws and in accordance with the Convention on Domestic Workers which none of the Gulf countries have signed.” Gulf countries also exclude domestic workers From their wage protection systems

Migrant workers are the” human fuel” of GCC economies

Migrants have played a significant role in building Gulf countries economies since the 1970s. During the past three decades, they have contributed to their growth. Migrants constitute the largest percentage of population growth that reached 151.5% in all six Gulf countries. 

Figures indicate that number of migrants have tripled when compared with the national population increase in the past three decades where the number of citizens has increased by 87.5%, that of migrants increased by 267.4%.

During this period, Gulf economies recorded a growth, in their GDP from $210 billion to $1,817 billion (765%).



Migrant workers in Gulf countries of the total number of people migrating for work internationally


Percentage of migrants in Gulf countries of the total number of migrant workers worldwide

The number of migrants in Gulf countries reached 30 million, constituting 11% of the total number of migrant workers worldwide which is estimated at 272 million. This is despite the fact that the population of all six Gulf countries does not exceed 0.8% of the world’s population. Migrant workers in Gulf countries constitute 14.2% of the total number of people migrating for work internationally and which reached 169 million according to figures by ILO.

Female migrants percentage

Female migrants constitute 28% of the total migrants in the GCC, 14,5% of total GCC population, and 3.1% of the total migrants in the world.


of the total migrants in the world


of total GCC population


of the total migrants in the GCC

Period: Three decades – from 1990 until 2019. Source: United Nations and World Bank

Population and Labor Force in GCC (Thousand)

Total Labor force





Saudi Arabia

World Bank – Contractual Relationship Improvement Initiative

Population – Source: World Bank – UN

Female Migrants in the Gulf (Thousand)

Covid-19, migrant workers suffer the most from force majeure

“Wage theft” is a chronic problem that migrant workers face in the Gulf. The coronavirus pandemic, which negatively affected Gulf economies and the global economy, helped expose the violations of migrant workers’ rights.

“Wage theft” had the worst impact on migrant workers whose main purpose of traveling to the Gulf was to make a living to provide for themselves and for their families at home. This issue also shed the light on the loopholes in labor laws and the obstacles that migrant workers face when they resort to the available complaint mechanisms and litigation procedures.


At the end of 2019, it had been an entire year since Siddiq last received any salary from his employer, and six months since his last day at work. Siddiq began to get worried due to the company’s procrastination in paying his dues. At the time, Siddiq had not visited his family for five years.

Due to his ill health, he finally decided to file a complaint at the Ministry of Labor and Social Development against the company. Siddiq said: “In early 2020, (news emerged) about a virus spreading in the world, and we heard that we may be prohibited from travelling. I want to be with my family. Time passed quickly while I was working. Every time I intended to return home, I kept postponing my return for another year because of my financial obligations.”

After his residency permit expired, Siddiq could no longer go to the governmental healthcare center. He also could no longer afford buying medication for his chronic health conditions as those cost him $106 per month, i.e. twice the amount which the company paid him ($53) to live on. His colleagues also faced similar problems.

The company informed Siddiq and his colleagues that travelling was prohibited and reassured them that these were exceptional circumstances and they shouldn’t worry if their residency permits expired. Siddiq and his colleagues were only capable of accessing healthcare in case they were infected with Covid-19 as the government announced that it will treat migrant workers without examining their legal residency status.

At this point, ordinary work at ministries (employees’ attendance at offices) was suspended; hence, Siddiq and his colleagues were not able to follow up on their complaint at the Ministry of Labor. The company stopped communicating with them. They continued to live in their accomodation provided by their employer, but they faced the risk of eviction after the company stopped paying the rent. They lived in dire conditions and they had to rely on charity for their subsistence. The landlord eventually had the power cut off, leaving them to rely on power from a generator. worsening their living conditions even further as they suffered from power outages during the scorching summer heat because they could not afford fuel to refill it.

As Covid-19 spread, work was suspended in several sectors in the Gulf. The pandemic and its economic repercussions on Gulf economies exposed the fragile situation of migrant workers in Gulf countries and their vulnerable position.

Although migrant workers are the backbone of the labor market in the Gulf countries, considering that they constitute 83.8% of their workforce, these countries’ crisis response did not consider those to be part of their priorities. Instead, they rushed to help private sector companies by activating “force majeure”measures in their laws to allow affected companies to decrease employees’ wages or force them to take paid or unpaid leave. On the level of workers’ rights, this looked more like a measure that paved the way for “wage theft” during the pandemic.

At the same time, the governments helped These companies pay the wages of citizens. They also helped with rent and exempted them from fees to renew residence and work permits of migrant workers, subjecting only migrant workers in the private sector to harm due to “force majeure”.

Governmental measures to confront the pandemic’s consequences in the private sector


Some companies violated Article 28 of the Labor Law in the Private Sector (No. 6) of 2010 which stipulates: “Regardless of whether the work contract is for a specific of indefinite term, the remuneration of the worker may not be reduced during the contract validity period.” According to the article, any reductions in the worker’s remuneration shall be deemed null and void. According to a report by Al-Jazeera channel, companies’ reduction of workers’ remuneration ranged between 30% and 65% while the contracts of some employees were terminated. The government approved in principle a draft law to add a new article to the Labor Law that allows companies to negotiate with their employees to reduce their wages and grant them a paid leave during crises and disasters. However, the parliament did not approve the proposal to reduce wages in the private sector by 50%.


The Supreme Committee tasked with studying the scopes for a mechanism to deal with developments resulting from coronavirus, approved to grant permission to affected companies to give paid leaves to employees in the sectors whose work was suspended and to negotiate reducing their wages for three months in exchange for reducing their working hours. It emphasized obligating private sector institutions to sustain the work of Omanis and not terminate their services; however, it urged them to lay-off non-Omani workers where necessary.

Saudi Arabia

The “force majeure” regulation was activated to mitigate the effects on private sector facilities. This regulation, which is included in the Explanatory Memorandum of Article No. (41) of the Labor Law Implementing Regulations, allows reducing employees’ wages by 40% for six months and allows the termination of their  contracts.


Enabling employers to reduce the wages of migrant workers via activating Ministerial Resolution No. 279 of 2020 regarding the stability of employment in the private sector.


Activating Article 43 of the Labor Law which stipulates that if the worker is prevented from executing his work for reasons of force majeure beyond the employer’s control, the worker shall be entitled to half his wage.


The Ministry of Finance requested ministries and governmental institutions to reduce the monthly costs of non-Qatari employees by 30% either by reducing wages or terminating their services. It also allowed Qatar Energy, (formerly Qatar Petroleum) and Qatar Airways to reduce spending and lay off 20% of their non-Qatari employees.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Center, which follows up on violations of migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf, recorded that the allegations of abuse in Gulf countries between April 2020 and August 2020 witnessed a 275% increase when compared with allegations of abuse for the same period during 2019. Out of the 80 allegations of abuse that the center recorded during this period, non-payment of wages was the most frequent of cases as this violation was cited in 81% of cases.


In Saudi Arabia, labor courts settled 31,766 lawsuits during the year when Covid-19 spread (from March 2020 until March 2021). Lawsuits that pertain to wages constituted 59% of them. Other lawsuits pertained to requesting compensations, allowances and bonuses, which all fall within the practice of “wage theft”.


A report published on the website of Bahrain’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development noted that up until October 2020, the ministry received 16,532 requests to settle disputes between employees and employers. It added that 50.3% of these disputes were resolved amicably. The ministry also received 14 complaints lodged collectively, and they were also resolved amicably. This number (16,532) reflects an increase of 52% when compared with the number of complaints filed in the previous year. Although the author of this investigative report communicated with relevant parties in all Gulf countries, she could not clarify the nature of these complaints and whether they pertain to non-payment of wages. She also could not obtain the number of lawsuits that are related to migrant workers and could not obtain the total number of complaints or lawsuits which are related to non-payment of wages in all the Gulf countries discussed in this investigation.

Migrant workers also faced problems during the pandemic due to the suspension of work at some government departments, including courts and offices where complaints are lodged. Meanwhile, departments that continued to operate were under pressure due to reduced working hours and employees capacity. In the UAE, the suspension of labor courts’ work resulted in delaying looking into non-payment of wages lawsuits.

The ILO Regional Office for Arab States said, in the summary of its meeting that was held in February 2021: “Labor dispute commissions in the Gulf have reduced their operation capacity to 30% due to Covid-19.” It also noted that “wage protection systems in the Gulf that were set up to punish employers who violate workers’ rights in terms of wages, (received an enormous amount of complaints). Workers’ insurance funds in Qatar and the UAE were also unable (to address) challenges. For example, the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund in Qatar was only able to disburse $3.85 million as of August 2020 to 5,500 workers, a large number of other workers did not receive their wages.”

Exodus and global sympathy

There is no statistics about the size of migrant workers whose livelihoods were affected during the pandemic. However, the numbers of migrant workers who have left Gulf countries for good during the pandemic indicates there are unusual circumstances that pushed them to leave. These workers left either because of the termination of their job contracts or work or out of fear of the protective measures that excluded them, particularly amid governmental statements that urged its institutions to expedite nationalization of their labor forces, and reduce the reliance on migrant workers.

Credit Rating Agency Standard & Poor’s estimated that the population of the six Gulf countries, which this report discusses, has decreased by 4% during the year when the pandemic spread and attributed this decrease to the high levels of job losses in the Gulf.

Gulf governments facilitated irregular migrant workers’ departure by exempting them from fines for violating their residency status. This raised fears about the dues owed to these workers, pushing international workers’ rights organizations, civil society, and labor syndicates to mobilize. They launched a global campaign that calls for establishing urgent judicial mechanisms to retrieve these workers’ wages from employers. The campaign also aimed to draw the world’s attention to these inhumane practices committed against migrant workers.

It must be noted that the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), which led this campaign along with other organizations, documented 1,465 cases of wage theft against migrant workers in all Gulf countries between June 2020 and May 2021. These cases, however, were documented based on the victims’ initiatives and on the organizations which followed up on these cases; thus they represent a model and do not reflect the magnitude of the problem in each country. Legal migrant workers constituted the largest percentage of these cases in all Gulf countries except Kuwait. This indicates that these victims were subjected to “wage theft” while working in prominent companies. It also indicates how difficult it is for irregular migrant workers to demand the payment of their dues since most of them work without contracts or on a daily basis.

The database which ARIJ has obtained with assistance from MFA showed that 89% of (the 1465 cases) were male and 11% were female. The majority were from India (51%), Nepal (31%), Bangladesh (10%) and Philippine (7%) with (1%) from Indonesia.


Indicators of human trafficking


This investigative report reveal that there are at least eight indicators out of 11 indicators of forced labor as specified by ILO’s Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labor that were derived from ILO’s theoretical and practical experience. Forced labor is considered a form of human trafficking. The fact that there are laws that prohibit the practices that these indicators are based on, reflect how dangerous they are. However, these practices have become common due to the lax implementation of the laws that are also full of loopholes. This is in addition to the fragile conditions that those affected live in, and their circumstances that prevent them from seeking help or justice.

Types of wage theft

Lawyers and activists in Gulf countries have identified 17 types of ‘wage theft’ that vary in Commomality according to the differences in the strictness of the laws that regulate wages and the contractual relationship between the employer and the employee. In addition to the monthly wage, “wage theft” also includes the theft of overtime allowances, leave entitlements, and end of service gratuity.

1- Some recruitment agencies in countries of origin and countries of destination impose fees on the individual in order to recruit them. The worker thus ends up in debt (even before taking up their new job) although the laws of all Gulf countries – except Kuwait – prohibit charging fees to workers.

Ibrahim S. is one of 120 workers who were subjected to “wage theft” during the pandemic. They were deported without being given their end of service gratuity and after their wages were withheld from 2017. MFA reported that these workers paid between $673 and $1,076 to a recruitment agency in India to employ them in a large construction company in Saudi Arabia. The company, which is owned by investors from Saudi Arabia and India, employs around 10,000 such workers.

Recruitment Fees


2- Replacing an agreement with another for a lesser wage upon arrival

“Migrants are deceived by dual agreements, one in the country of origin and another in the country of destination. The agreements have different conditions. (When the migrants realize this is happening to them), it would be too late (to do anything) as they have already become in debt and there’s no way back.”

Source: Dr. Nasrah Shah, a professor in the faculty of economy at Lahore University, who worked for 30 years in Kuwait University as a lecturer in demography.

3- Termination of services and deportation without paying dues.

4- Blackmail by confiscating passports to force workers to sign work compensation settlements even if not all dues have been paid.

Confiscation of passports is common in Gulf countries although the law in these countries prohibit this practice.


5- Working without a valid visa

An employer’s consent is mandatory to renew the visa.

In Bahrain, courts deem employees who demand their dues after their visa expires as ineligible, even though the employees cannot renew their visa without the approval of the employer.

6- Compulsory working period

All Gulf countries do not allow workers to change their jobs without the approval of the employer or only allows them to do so after a certain period of time has passed. Some employers exploit this period of time to force workers to work for a lesser wage until this period ends.

7- Not paying overtime remuneration

Some laws allow the employer to have certain employees in positions such as security guards to work additional hours. Employers exploit this to note it in the contract without granting them extra money for the additional hours worked.

8- Manipulation of end of service gratuity

The amount of end of service gratuity is calculated on the basis of the employee’s last wage. Some employers pay their salary dues once every two years of service; hence, the employee may get a lesser amount of money.

9- Changing a worker’s visa to indicate that they are working for another registered company, although owned by the same original employer often without the worker’s knowledge.

Changing the company’s register deprives the worker of his right to demand any dues such as end of service gratuity a year after changing the company’s register even if the holding company of the new firm is the same.

10- Procrastination

Employers often use empty promises to deter workers from filing a lawsuit. They keep making these promises until the limitation period to claim wages and other entitlements due passes. The worker also does not get a remuneration for wrongful termination and do not get the wages and other entitlements due to them for the remaining duration of the contract or a compensation as stipulated by law if the limitation period has passed. (In Bahrain, for example, a worker cannot make any claims if it’s been one year since the contract was terminated).

11- Employers withhold the employees ATM cards to withdraw money after the agreed wages were deposited, then they hand the wage to workers in cash often part of it apart from the constant delay in paying people’s salaries on time.

“Some companies circumvent the law that stipulates paying workers via a bank deposit. They exploit the workers’ lack of knowledge of their rights and their need to work and make a living. These companies keep the workers’ ATM cards so they can deposit and withdraw money on their behalf which is often considered a criminal act. In Kuwait, for instance, this is considered a crime of forgery that the perpetrator is punished for according to the penal code. The aim of such a practice is to mislead the authorities in case the worker demands his wages and entitlements and to hide the exact amount of his wage. In Kuwait, for instance, this is a violation of the Labor Law of Kuwait No. 6 of 2010.”

Meshari AlHumaidan, a Kuwaiti lawyer

12- Recruitment agents deduct a sum of the agreed salary, hence violating the agreement between the recruitment agency and the employers

This practice is very common in the case of domestic workers and security guards in all Gulf countries where public and private companies hire these employees via agreements with recruitment agencies.

13- Exploiting the salary rates as set for certain sectors

In Kuwait, there are specific salary brackets for work in certain sectors. Employers issue work permits for certain jobs that are linked to government benefits and advantages which the workers are supposed to get. However, after the work permit is issued, the employers change the worker’s job title and function to another for a wage that’s different from what was stipulated in the original contract.

14- Female domestic employees work around the clock

Most laws that pertain to domestic work jobs in the Gulf do not determine what the working hours of those should be. Some of them stipulate that the domestic worker is entitled to a certain number of hours to rest per day. Domestic workers end up working for 15 hours per day without any financial compensation and in violation of all international standards.

15- Some wage theft practices begin in the country of origin based on an agreement between the recruitment agencies and the families who want to hire a domestic worker. The agency and the family agree not to pay the domestic worker a wage for a month or more after the worker’s arrival to the destination country in order to decrease the capital cost of the domestic’s worker employment for the employer.

16- Making domestic workers work for long hours and tasking them with working at relatives’ houses for free

“I never received a full wage on time ever since I arrived to work ten months ago. According to the contract, my wage is $235 but I only received amounts between $77 and $105 per monthwhile I worked. Then I was asked to work for free in the house of my employer’s daughter who had fired her domestic worker. I fled because of this treatment, and my passport is still with them. I think they filed a lawsuit against me and accused me of absconding. I do not know for sure, but they must have done that.”

Sarah (26 years old), a Kenyan domestic worker who works for a family in Riyadh

17- Not paying workers who returned to their country of origin and could not return to the destination country because their visa expired during the pandemic. Employers refuse to pay them their financial dues owed to them.

“Before and after the pandemic, a large number of workers returned to India and got stuck there. Their visas expired, hence, they could not  return to the destination country unless the company renew their visas. Some of them worked for these companies for a long period of time – such as 30 years. They were thus not paid their wages, their end of service gratuity, and employers did not renew their visas because they are aware that the financial dues constitute large sums of money. Source

Sotheer Thironelath  Director of humanitarian affairs at the World NRA Council  and the director of the Indian Embassy’s emergency trust fund in Bahrain

Wage theft reasons

Kafala (sponsorship), main reason for abuse of migrant workers’ rights

There are many reasons that have made “wage theft” – in its various forms – common and even acceptable by the employer, employee and the society as a whole. This imbalance of power between migrant workers and employers in the Gulf is mainly attributed to the sponsorship system, which was introduced in 1928 during the British colonial period.

British administrators first introduced the sponsorship system to organize the relationship between employers and divers arriving in Bahrain. According to researcher Doctor Omar Al-Shehabi: “British officials had assumed the task of issuing entry visas to Bahrain as entry to the island required the approval of the British political agent and an entry visa. Passport control points to enter were first established in 1929.”

British authorities adopted this sponsorship system to control labor migration in Bahrain, and they began implementing it in other Gulf areas they colonized. By 1971, these countries became independent, and they authorized the citizen to act as sponsor to deal with migrant workers after they had previously relied on the British authorities to do so.


What is currently referred to as the “kafala system” (sponsorship system) is a set of legislations that legally controls migration and residence in Gulf countries (Table-1), except for Qatar which gradually abolished it. 

The sponsorship system defines the legal relation between the employer (the sponsor), the employee (the sponsored) and the state. Workers cannot enter any Gulf country unless they are sponsored by a citizen or a company. Although the term “sponsorship” appears to imply protecting workers, the powers that the sponsor has in terms of issuing, renewing and cancelling migrants’ worker permits and residency make this relation closer to slavery. The system controls two major aspects that restrict the workers’ freedom: changing jobs and travel. The employers control the fate of migrant workers since their arrival to the destination country and for the duration of their stay and employment and they control their movement and even their exit from the country.


Gulf countries introduced amendments to the sponsorship law. With each amendment they made, they celebrated “abolishing” the sponsorship system; however, when examining these amendments, it is observed that the latter are trivial as they include complicated measures and do not strictly prohibit the employer from restraining the workers’ freedom. In four of the six countries which this report addresses, the only item abolished was obtaining the employer’s approval for the worker to leave the country. However, the employer’s permission for the worker to enter the country remained in place. Workers are allowed to change their jobs in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia after the worker has worked for their original sponsor for a full year. In other countries, workers are not allowed to change their jobs except after two years or more or after their contract expires. As for domestic workers, they are not allowed to change their jobs except after their contract expires or in the case of violations committed.

Only Bahrain introduced a measure to allow workers to live and work in the country without an employer or sponsor. Introduced in 2017, the Flexi Permit allows migrant workers already present in Bahrain to be their own sponsors. However, this means they are no longer protected by the labor law as the Flexi Permit means they’re now employers and not employees. The workers’ situation thus becomes more fragile since they cannot resort to labor courts if their rights are violated. Getting a Flexi Permit is also a costly affair as the application fees can reach $2,100 per permits valid for one year and $3,906 per permit valid for two years. These sums are close to what irregular workers pay To middlepeople or illegal agents in the country of origin and country of destination.

“kafala system” (sponsorship system) – Table 1


Exploitation and blackmail

A number of practices resulted from this (new) sponsorship system such as the emergence of trading in visas and the rise of a category of exploitative agents. If the sponsor does not renew the worker’s residency, the worker becomes an irregular worker; hence, he cannot legally demand the payment of wages. It’s thus the responsibility of the country of origin to raise the awareness of its citizens about their financial rights, the laws that regulate their relationship with employers and the consequences of intentional and unintentional violations in the country of destination.


This is what happened to Siddiq when he wanted to file a lawsuit against the company he worked for. His lawyer informed him that it has been more than a year since he hasn’t received his salary and other entitlements.

Siddiq had believed the company’s promises that it will make these payments and settle the dispute amicably through the Ministry of Labor where he and his colleagues had lodged a complaint. Siddiq was unaware that the company was stalling until the limitation period ends and he only realized this when the company’s representative stopped responding to their frequent calls.

The last salary Siddiq received, which was $1,396, was at the end of November 2018. He then worked for seven months without receiving his wage and the company kept promising it would pay later. Siddiq thus never lodged an official complaint until December 2019, which was too late.

Although laws in all Gulf countries prohibit confiscating the worker’s passport (Table-2), this practice is common as no legal measures are taken against the perpetrator (except in Qatar where a fine up to $6865 is imposed and the passport is returned to the worker) since the employer receive only a warning usually to return the passport. This is one aspect of power imbalance between the employer and the employee as it facilitates blackmailing the employees to force them to give up their rights if they wants to travel or change their job.

Passport Confiscation (Table-2)


– Source: ILO Fact sheet

Female domestic workers suffer the most from this practice that worsens their already fragile situation. This is aggravated by the fact that it’s easy to lodge a complaint accusing her of absconding any time she tries to go out of the house to seek the help of the existing mechanisms to demand her rights.

A Kuwaiti lawyer, who requested to remain anonymous said that the sponsorship system is bad not only for workers, adding that it “forces” employers to be bad to sustain their businesses. There are always fears of both parties. This flaw can be reformed if the worker becomes his own sponsor. “I hope this happens in Kuwait, and that they (set) official agreements that organize the relationship between the two parties. The sponsorship system must be changed in order to make it possible to amend laws and regulations that fall under it.”

A scarecrow

The accusation of absconding is the scarecrow that intimidates migrant workers, particularly domestic workers. Kuwaiti lawyer May Al-Tararwah from the legal department at the Kuwaiti Social Work Society said lodging a complaint accusing a worker of absconding must not be that easy and that it must require presenting evidence that proves the worker did not show up to work.

“What worries me the most as a lawyer is delaying the original case brought by the employee. We thus communicate with employees at the relevant departments to expedite recording that the worker is the one who lodged a complaint before the employer lodges a complaint accusing the worker of absconding.” The penalty for absconding is deportation – which means the worker is blacklisted and prohibited from re-entering Kuwait and Gulf countries for five years.

In a group on a social media platform that includes 4,200 migrant workers (among them one female migrant researcher who assisted in this investigative report) in Saudi Arabia, the participants mainly spoke about delays and non-payment of wages and about the consequences of absconding if a worker decides to leave work after months of not receiving a salary.  Thirty female domestic workers were randomly selected from this group to be asked if their salaries were delayed. 66% of them answered with a yes, and all of them agreed that female domestic workers are the ones who are subject to exploitation the most considering the circumstances of their employment.

A scarecrow

The accusation of absconding is the scarecrow that intimidates migrant workers, particularly domestic workers. Kuwaiti lawyer May Al-Tararwah from the legal department at the Kuwaiti Social Work Society said lodging a complaint accusing a worker of absconding must not be that easy and that it must require presenting evidence that proves the worker did not show up to work.

“What worries me the most as a lawyer is delaying the original case brought by the employee. We thus communicate with employees at the relevant departments to expedite recording that the worker is the one who lodged a complaint before the employer lodges a complaint accusing the worker of absconding.” The penalty for absconding is deportation – which means the worker is blacklisted and prohibited from re-entering Kuwait and Gulf countries for five years.

In a group on a social media platform that includes 4,200 migrant workers (among them one female migrant worker who assisted in this investigative report) in Saudi Arabia, the participants mainly spoke about delays and non-payment of wages and about the consequences of absconding if a worker decides to leave work after months of not receiving a salary.  Thirty female domestic workers were randomly selected from this group to be asked if their salaries were delayed. 66% of them answered with a yes, and all of them agreed that female domestic workers are the ones who are subject to exploitation the most considering the circumstances of their employment.

Justice mechanisms are not enough despite their advancements

The complaint mechanisms and litigation procedures are similar in Gulf countries and resorting to them begins at ministries and employment commissions. All Gulf countries have labor courts but migrant workers face difficulties when they need to resort to them. The first obstacle is that contracts are drawn in Arabic, and even if there is a translated copy, the Arabic text is the one adopted (Table-3). The follow-up and notifications are also sent in Arabic via text messages.


Siddiq always carries in his pocket a paper in which he wrote all the financial dues owed to him and the name of the ministry and the department handling his case in Arabic

as well as a phone number, written out in Arabic numbers, for follow-up.

The biggest challenge workers face is the possibility of losing their job if they lodge a complaint or file a lawsuit against their employer. This is the main reason workers tolerate abuse before they decide to resort to the law. The failure to reach a settlement on the case that is first handled by ministries, employment commissions and labor attachés at embassies means the case will be directly transferred to labor courts, in countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In Bahrain, it’s possible for the worker to directly resort to the court or to appoint someone who represents him to file a lawsuit.

Contracts language (Table-3)


During the litigation period, the workers are responsible for their rent and living expenses as well as the transportation fees to attend court proceedings. Female domestic workers may bear the heaviest burden because leaving the employer’s house to lodge a complaint puts them at risk of being accused of absconding – an accusation that makes it easy for abusive employers to avoid any accountability. This is in addition to the difficulty of finding a shelter to stay in until the complaint or the lawsuit (in case the female domestic worker decided to go to court) is settled, especially that shelters are mostly for victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Lawyer May Al-Tararwah explained the difficulties which female domestic workers face when they decide to leave the employer’s house and said: “If she decides to leave (the employer’s house) to lodge a complaint, she does not know where the relevant department is – it’s actually a small department in the area of Rumaithiya. She also has to pay the transportation costs. Many workers do not speak Arabic while the majority of employees (at the department) do not speak English even though the department does what it can to help.” Al-Tararwah added that language is a huge barrier for workers in the private sector and female domestic workers.

Domestic workers face this problem in all Gulf countries except in the UAE where they can lodge complaints online via the “Tadbeer” app which is available in Arabic, English and Hindi, and in Qatar where there is also an online app called “Amerni” that is in Arabic and English.

An international labor expert, who requested to remain anonymous, said: “Victims of wage theft believe that litigation procedures against the employer is costly and it’s a process that takes a long time, especially that even if a verdict is issued in favor of the employee, it does not mean that the company will (pay) the wages since there is no strict implementation procedures once the case is closed.”

A system that punishes but does not compensate

“Wage protection systems” in the Gulf were first put in place in the UAE in 2009. Despite their importance as a monitoring tool, they have fallen short of fully protecting all migrant workers. Domestic workers, who make up a quarter of these migrant workers, are not covered by these “wage protection systems” (WPS). 

The punishment imposed on employers who violate migrant workers’ rights is an administrative matter and not a criminal act despite the magnitude of the harm that “wage theft” victims and their families suffer as a result of such violations. Employers who are found guilty of violating migrant workers’ rights are only fined and the money goes to the state’s treasury and does not extend to compensate the worker.

Gulf countries designed wage protection systems successively (Table-4) by obliging employers to deposit the workers wages, except for domestic workers, in banks and financial institutions and link the accounts to the ministry of labor to monitor the full and regular payment of salaries. However, these systems cannot monitor cases of “wage theft” that are a result of not paying overtime and cannot tell when the employer keeps the (employee’s) ATM card to later withdraw the money then hand the worker an amount of money that’s lesser than his salary in cash.

Payment of Wages (Table-4)


Researcher Ray Jureidini criticized wage protection systems in the Gulf saying: “It may be argued that the wage protection procedures in the GCC states are not yet designed to protect wages. They operate to ensure that there is a record that workers’ wages have been paid and on time. It may be that most employees are paid properly and on time. The system, however, leaves a number of doors open for unscrupulous employers to manipulate the system for their own benefit and to the detriment of their employees.”

Anas Shaker, the technical officer at ILO’s office in Kuwait, said that the best practices include making efforts to improve the role of committees that combat human trafficking to monitor the indicators of forced labor that lead to human trafficking. He added that in case of suspecting forced labor, such cases must be transferred to the criminal investigation department to further examine issues of forced labor and human trafficking.

Dr. Nasrah Shah, who worked for 30 years as a lecturer in demographics in Kuwait University, voiced fears that the situation may get worse as it does not seem to be improving, noting that the longer the period which a migrant worker spends as an irregular worker puts him at risk of not finding another job; hence his situation will worsen. She said that migrant workers and the countries of origin are helpless because they need the migrant’s remittances especially amid the rising rates of unemployment everywhere. This signifies a decline in protection. Shah also noted that “transition to knowledge based economy will decrease the opportunities of low-skilled workers, whose numbers are currently high in the Gulf, in favor of medium-skilled and high-skilled workers. For instance, low-skilled workers will not find job opportunities in the construction sector.” 

Shah, also said that “wage theft” psychologically impacts victims, adding that 99.99% of migrants travel to the Gulf to work and make money, and when this goal is not achieved, their psychological state is significantly impacted.

“My father is no longer the same man every time he visits us. He is absent-minded and feels aggrieved because he was deprived of his financial dues and he feels disappointed that the ministry of labor was not strict with the company to force it to pay these dues.”

– Samareeha, Siddiq’s daughter


Before leaving, Siddiq, with the help of an NGO, appointed a lawyer to file a lawsuit to demand his dues.

Seven months have passed since Siddiq left, and to the date of publishing this report, The lawyer had been trying to get dues through the courts but  no success.

Gois emphasized “the importance of setting up an international mechanism to demand and guarantee the payment of migrant workers’ wages and other entitlements. Gulf countries will continue to need migrant workers, and the countries of origin will not be able to absorb the number of those looking for jobs. Therefore, this problem will go on. The solution, however, is to set strong legislative frameworks that can protect migrant workers’ rights. There must be exceptional measures to handle the high number of wage theft that have even greatly increased due to the pandemic.”

“Migrant workers, who are the most fragile, have been crushed during the crisis. What happened is certainly a huge crime that did not only affect migrant workers but also affected their families at home and their children. If we do not address this issue properly, we will be looked upon as the worst and the most selfish generation in history, and future generations will be witnesses to our bad management of this crisis.” He added.

Note: All tables were designed based on ILO factsheets for all Gulf countries


Pseudonym was used to protect worker’s identity

Migrant Forum in Asia
Zainab Alsammak – Kuwait
Maytha Alalyani – Oman