ISLAMABAD: A report on the plight of Pakistanis in the Gulf States said low-wage migrants working abroad were at the mercy of their employers, subjected to discriminatory and inhumane working conditions and inadequate consular assistance from their diplomatic missions.

Titled, “The cost of living: migrant workers’ access to health in the Gulf”, the report was launched at an event in Islamabad on Thursday. It was a collaborative effort of civil society organisations in South and Southeast Asia.

The launch event entailed a presentation of the findings of the report relevant to Pakistan followed by a moderated discussion between participants on the issue of migrant workers’ access to healthcare in the Gulf, and what needed to be done to improve their situation.

The event was attended by parliamentarians, migrant workers and representatives of various government and multilateral organisations, including the International Labor Organisation, Ministry of Overseas Pakistani and Human Resource Development, Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment and International Organisation of Migration.

The report said destitute Pakistanis faced harsh state of affairs due to their lack of understanding of and assistance with the labour recruitment process, exploitative labour laws and a lack of protections negotiated on their behalf by their home country. These issues were further compounded by the fact that migrant workers in Gulf countries faced severe difficulties in accessing affordable healthcare.

Chaudhry Shafique from the Parliamentarians Commission for Human Rights said: “Exploitation of migrant workers is not just an individual issue, it affects their families, the community and, most importantly, the economy.”

It is the first of its kind report to attempt to systematically analyze and explore the issue of migrant workers’ access to healthcare in the six states of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC), where about 30 million migrant workers accounted for more than 50 per cent of the total population.

Senator Dr Zarqa Suharwardy Taimur in a video brief said she had tabled a law in the Senate where the labour attache would be responsible for Pakistan migrants’ workers across the world.

The new law specifically prescribes harsh punishments for agents who dupe people under false pretense of them getting a lucrative job, she added.

The report said easy access to healthcare was particularly critical for low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf due to the multiple adverse health conditions that can result from their work. The GCC states’ healthcare services were generally not tailored to the specific needed of this population. There was obvious evidence of discrimination in access to healthcare for migrant workers with lack of documentation and affordability the most significant obstacles.

The gradual shift in the region to mandatory private health insurance is more likely to further restrict access to care than to improve low-paid migrant workers’ access to healthcare.

The report suggested repealing any laws or regulations that required medical professionals to report undocumented or pregnant migrant workers to the authorities and explicitly prohibit medical professionals from doing so.

It also suggested to introduce meaningful sanctions, passing legislation if necessary, for employers and sponsors who, by their actions or omissions (e.g. confiscation or non-renewal of identity documents), prevent migrant workers from accessing healthcare.

The report insisted that at a bilateral level, and with the input of public health experts, inclusion of transparent and explicit healthcare provisions in all bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding with the GCC states. Establish and activate meaningful and regular review processes for these, it added.

At a multilateral level, work in coalition with other origin states and outline a detailed position aimed at improving GCC migrant workers’ access to health in regional and global forums such as the Colombo Process, the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and the Global Forum for Migration and Development.

Sarah Belal, the executive director of Justice Project, said: “While many of these issues stem from the systems set up in the GCC countries, there are numerous steps that both the government and civil society of Pakistan can take to ensure that migrant workers from Pakistan are being provided their fundamental right to health. Engagement with the governments of these countries is the most important step that must be taken,” she added.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2023

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