The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continues to stand out as a region with repeated and serious abuses of human rights. We are on the cusp of the 10th anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, which erupted with such blazing hope for change among the next generation. In the years since, Egypt has sunk back into the grip of a totalitarian military regime. The monarchy in Saudi Arabia has become even more bold in its strangulation of dissent. Syria, Yemen and Libya are engaged in vicious, incessant conflicts in which foreign governments vie for power.
Now, the double whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices is exacerbating the region’s dismal record in human rights—including growing reports of worker exploitation and vulnerability.
Without a doubt the pandemic is wreaking havoc on business performance. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that economies in the MENA region will drop 5.7% in 2020, with Global Cooperation Council (GCC) countries shrinking an even larger 7.6%. On top of that, oil-exporting countries are experiencing additional pain. While oil prices have recovered from their historic plunge in March, they continue to trade nearly below 40% pre-pandemic levels.
All that spells mass job insecurity for already unstable workers. For example, the Air Transport Action Group predicted last month that by the end of 2020, 7 million aviation-related jobs in the Middle East will be gone.
Foreign migrants are particular targets. Relief measures enacted by Gulf countries to shore up their economies share a common pattern: citizen first. For example, Omani nationals cannot be fired, but migrant workers can be. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain subsidize private-sector wages to preserve jobs, but for citizens only.
Those who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs are actually not so fortunate. Many of them, particularly migrants working in frontline occupations like food production, are being forced to labour for excessive hours without proper protective equipment. And reports abound of employers not paying for overtime.
In October 2020, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies documented hazardous working conditions in Jordanian factories, triggering a rash of COVID-19 infections. In one day, 600 confirmed diagnoses were recorded among migrant workers from Bangladesh at a single garment factory in the industrial area of the Al-Dhalail.
Not all industries are suffering to this extent, of course; some have been able to cash in on the unique conditions created by the pandemic. Regardless of the particular situation, however, the obligation to respect and protect the human rights of workers remains.
International human rights treaties do not define clear legal obligations for commercial enterprises. Thus, it is up to individual state governments to translate internationally protected human rights into regulations of business behavior.
The year 2021 also will mark the 10th anniversary of the unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
The Guiding principles are clear that business enterprises are responsible for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights. To assist states in ensuring their implementation, the U.N. Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises called on governments to develop, enact and continuously update national action plans. To date, 26 states have either developed such a plan or included a business and human rights chapter in a broader human rights strategy.
None of those 26 states are from the MENA. Two—Jordan and Morocco—have at least pledged to develop and adopt national action plans; however, no follow-through has yet been documented.
The documented impact of COVID-19 on workers makes it undeniable that the risks of no action are real. Without a focus on human rights in the business sector, along with follow-up to ensure enforcement, businesses can and do infringe on them—with broader implications for customers, supply-chain partners and communities at large.
However, experience has shown that too often, businesses pursue short-term gains over long-term benefit. This is why the U.N.’s global principles are critical and why pressure must be brought to bear on MENA governments to enact national action plans to obtain compliance.