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Nourah Al-Sulaiman is advancing the rights of migrant workers in MENA

“I acknowledge my voice in my own country and in the region as a Khaleeji. It’s powerful if you as an individual can make sure that you and your household takes responsibility to change without waiting for a government entity to tell you,” says 26-year-old Nourah Al-Sulaiman. 

Nourah is the project manager of Ensaniyat, a program by Migrant-Rights.org that focuses on spreading knowledge and awareness about migrant workers’ rights in the GCC. Her efforts are focused on the cyclical student exchange program that involves students in Qatar and Kuwait, working to change the perceptions around domestic and migrant workers.

“When you demand human rights, you shouldn’t be doing it because it’s legally the right thing to do, but because it’s the human thing to do,” she says. 

Raised a transnational child from Vienna to China and back to Kuwait, Nourah was exposed to many cultures and ways of life. She knows what it’s like to be away from family and to feel as though you don’t belong somewhere. 

In the Gulf region, the majority of the population consists of migrant workers – who are away from their families, carrying a deep sorrow and feeling of alienation, further intensified by the circumstances of the vulnerable journey they take and the life they lead to make a living. 

Over the years, civil societies within the Gulf have taken significant steps to provide workers with the support that they need, including pro-bono legal services. However, due to the ongoing employment conditions, workers remain vulnerable and isolated, especially following the pandemic where domestic workers were not able to leave the homes they worked in. 

Ensaniyat works to address these issues and focuses on changing the perception of migrant workers in the region, and aims to create change by fostering conversation around social justice issues affecting domestic workers.

“Our campaigns are always creative and peaceful ones,” she explains. “The cycle lasts about three to four months. Fellows learn about what laws exist, what policies exist, what society’s ideas of migrant workers in these countries are, and how the people talk about workers. At the end, they create student-led social justice campaigns.”

“My only role is to plant the seed of interest, curiosity, advocacy, wanting to change something,” explains Nourah, who believes that cultivating the minds of future generations is essential. 

In university, she studied international relations, as she was expected to follow in her father’s footsteps and go into diplomacy and politics, but her deep love was for law. 

“It was my father’s dream to see me graduate and in my last semester, he had a stroke. I remember the first thing I said when I went to the hospital was ‘Listen, I sucked it up and I sat here and I’m doing this now for you, so you better wake up and see me graduate,” she recalls. “During my graduation, there was a huge crowd and I was anxious. I remember when I went up to receive my certificate the only person I was able to see was my father.”

Pre-covid Nourah would travel back and forth between Qatar and Kuwait every other weekend, fuelled solely by her passion for Ensaniyat. “The love that I have for law and the advocacy for human rights ever since I was a child manifests through Ensaniyat, so it doesn’t feel like I’m working. It feels like I get paid to do something I love.”

There are many laws to regulate domestic labor in the GCC and the region, but not all of them are actually enforced by society, which leaves workers vulnerable and marginalized.

The minimum wage, for example,  is still significantly lower compared to the living standards. According to Migrant-Rights.org, domestic workers in Kuwait earn less than 20 percent of the average national wage and less than 30 percent of the average workers’ wage in Qatar.

While systematic racism is the common enemy globally, in the region it’s a cultural hierarchy that paints an even harsher reality for minorities. 

“In our culture, you see that hierarchy exists among us Kuwaitis. You’re Kuwaiti but originally where are you from? Are you from Saudi? Iran? Iraq? Bahrain? Which tribe do you belong to? Are you Bedouin? Are you from the merchants or the royals? These identities, unfortunately, play a role in how you are perceived in our society.”

She goes on, “However, I don’t see the same level of disrespect and dehumanizing treatment towards Americans or others. So your issue is not with this person not being Kuwaiti, your issue is because you have undermined their job, you have identified their role as a role you never see yourself doing.” 

Despite the way workers are undermined, the Gulf hires more than 2 million domestic workers a year. Expatriates, particularly migrant workers, make up a majority of the resident population of the UAE and account for 90 percent of its workforce.

Around 90 percent of all Kuwaiti households employ a foreign domestic worker according to Migrant-Rights.org. Domestic workers account for 36.6 percent of the total female workforce in Bahrain. 99.6 percent & 94.8 percent of all domestic workers and personal assistants in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are migrant workers.

“When there were diplomatic issues between the Philippines and Kuwait and the Philippines said they were bringing back all their people, Kuwaitis panicked. If I know I need someone and my household relies on the existence of this person, why would I mistreat them? Why have we made it us vs. them?”

Due to the kafala system which requires migrant workers to have a sponsor in the host country before a visa and worker’s permit can be issued, and the fact that many domestic workers live with their employers,  their livelihood is completely tied to their employer. 

There is more awareness around these issues now than before, and more people speaking out against the unfair systematic frameworks that make this kind of reality possible.  In March 2021, Saudi Arabia took a step forward in changing their Kafala system, giving workers the freedom to exit and enter the country or to transfer to other jobs at the end of a contract without needing their employers’ permission.

But there is a lot to be done to create safer and fairer work environments for migrant workers, who often suffer inhumane working conditions, non-payment of wages, movement restrictions, healthcare denial, sexual abuse, and more. Migrant-Rights.org states that domestic workers in Saudi Arabia work an average of 63.7 hours per week, the second-highest rate in the world.

“For some reason the more that they spend the more they view it as belonging to them. When someone pays 1,500 Kuwaiti dinars to hire a domestic worker, in their head it doesn’t register that they paid that money for the service, the service of paperwork, etc. In their head, something is telling them that this is how much this human costs.”

This idea of ownership and power has led to a mindset that prevails over the fact that labor laws exist. Many workers are unaware of these laws and remain quiet in the face of abuse and for the fear of losing their job, a risk they cannot afford. 

“Even If a worker wants to complain, and has every right to by the law, they are scared because they don’t want to go head to head with a national. They have completely lost their trust in themselves as an individual who can be outspoken.”

Beyond this, everyday language and behavior have proven to be a large contributor to this abuse, and changing the way workers are spoken of and addressed is an individual responsibility.

Generalization has also proven to be beyond harmful in the context of workers and expatriates, as this contributes largely to the discrimination, internalized racism, and violence towards minorities. 

Nourah thinks change begins In our day-to-day life when we choose to ask questions in moments when we would have otherwise walked away.  “If I’m driving and see workers standing outside in the heat I stop and question, why? Why is there no umbrella? Do they have water? If I go to Starbucks at 8 am and then I go at 9 pm and I realize the same worker is there, why are they working for 13 hours? I’ve normalized this in my life,” says Nourah. 

All statistics by Migrant-Rights.org & Statista.