Middle East and North Africa

4.53

Systematic violations of rights

Worse than last year

Middle East and North Africa is the worst region for working people

  • Exclusion of workers from labour protections

  • Dismantling of independent unions

  • Prosecuting and sentencing of workers participating in strikes

In 2022, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continued to be the world’s worst region for workers’ rights, with an average rating of 4.53 and increase from last years 4.50 average, falling between systematic violations and no guarantee of rights.

Libya, Palestine, Syria and Yemen were still beset with conflict, severely trampling fundamental liberties and rights of workers. Despite efforts in several Gulf countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to end the kafala system, migrant workers, who represent the majority of the working population in the region, remained exposed to severe human rights abuses, notably in the United Arab Emirates. In Tunisia, democracy was gravely undermined, and workers’ civil liberties were put into jeopardy as President Kais Saied dissolved the parliament and assumed direct power.

At a glance

100%

100% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining.

Compared with 94% in 2021
100%

All 19 countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021
100%

All 19 countries impeded the registration of unions.

No change from 2021
95%

95% of countries violated the right to strike.

Compared with 94% in 2021
84%

84% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa restricted free speech and assembly.

Compared with 83% in 2021
79%

79% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa denied workers access to justice.

Compared with 83% in 2021
47%

47% of countries arrested and detained workers.

Compared with 44% in 2021
42%

Workers experienced violent attacks in 42% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Compared with 44% in 2021

Workers were murdered in Iraq.

Workers' rights violations

Right to collective bargaining

100%

100% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining.

Compared with 94% in 2021

Right to collective bargaining

On 9 December 2021, the president of Tunisia issued a circular (No. 20) to all ministries and government institutions that prohibits anyone from negotiating with the unions without the formal and prior authorisation of the head of government.

Right to collective bargaining

In 2021-2022, employers in Oman unilaterally changed the terms of the collective agreement or even stopped implementing its provisions for frivolous reasons.

Right to collective bargaining

In the past year, violations of the right to collective bargaining have increased in Morocco, including targeted dismissals of union representatives and employers’ refusal to engage in collective bargaining. These anti-union measures had a chilling effect on workers’ capacity to defend their rights collectively and negatively impacted collective bargaining, which, as a result, was virtually absent in most companies and sectors. Previous commitments between the government and representatives of trade union confederations have been suspended without implementation.

Right to collective bargaining

At Tel Aviv University, Israel, the management refused to hold negotiations with the Research and Project Workers Employees' Committee, despite it being recognised as representative. The committee had to seek remedy through the courts, which finally ruled in its favour in December 2021.

Right to collective bargaining

In September 2021, 2,000 workers from the Universal Group Co., an Egyptian manufacturer of home appliances, organised a protest, demanding the payment of their wages for July and August and other benefits that had been suspended for a long time. These workers represented five factories out of the nine in the group. The workers especially denounced management violation of the agreement signed in October 2019 with the Ministry of Manpower in which it committed to paying wages. At that time, the ministry had bailed the company and paid the 5,000 workers out of the emergency fund for a period of six months to encourage the company not to lay off workers, but the group proceeded to force the workers to resign.

Right to collective bargaining

In April 2021, the workers of the National Agency for Entrepreneurship Support and Development in Algeria launched a strike by a decision of the National General Assembly of the Trade Union of the Enterprise protesting the refusal of the management to engage in collective bargaining.

Right to establish and join a trade unionWorkers excluded from labour protections

100%

All 19 countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Workers excluded from labour protections

In Morocco, certain categories of public employees were still denied the right to freedom of association, such as judges.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In the United Arab Emirates, foreign workers represented 89 per cent of the workforce. Under the kafala system, any attempt at escaping or fleeing an employer in the UAE is punishable by law. Runaway workers are imprisoned, deported, and face significant financial costs, including paying back their employers for the sponsorship fees without receiving salaries earned.

Horrendous reports of abuses have been exposed, like the case of a Nepali woman working as a domestic worker in a household in Dubai who was repeatedly sexually abused by her employer, his son and their relatives. Unable to escape, the 28-year-old tried to kill herself twice. She also tried to flee from the house, but to no avail. She then gave in to her employer’s demands, in the hope that it would help her escape. She managed to return home after two years of physical and mental exploitation.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In June 2021, 700 migrant workers from Africa were detained in the United Arab Emirates, denied access to legal or medical support. They were then deported. In 2021, migrant workers in the UAE were often denied timely payment of their wages and adequate overtime payments.

Workers excluded from labour protections

On 1 October 2021, the Dubai EXPO, a six-month international fair which welcomed 25 million visitors, opened in the United Arab Emirates. Despite the government’s promises, migrant workers across the country continued to suffer severe and frequent labour abuse. The almost eight million workers in the UAE remained at risk of suffering severe abuse facilitated by employment via the exploitative kafala system, with poor enforcement of regulation and with workers’ freedom to change employer curtailed. The most commonly reported types of abuse were conditions of employment (76 per cent); precarious and inadequate housing (56 per cent); arbitrary denial of freedoms (42 per cent); health and safety (39 per cent); verbal/physical abuse (13 per cent); human trafficking (5 per cent); deaths (5 per cent) and injuries (4 per cent).

Workers excluded from labour protections

Saudi Arabia went through a period of legislative change in the past years, and legal reforms came into force on 14 March 2021.

With the reforms, the ability of workers to transfer jobs has been facilitated, and employers' permission to leave the country is no longer required. Another important reform in Saudi Arabia was that of the labour courts, which have been automated to ensure speedy and effective justice and improve transparency.

For decades, restrictions on mobility have been used by employers to exploit and abuse migrant workers. Therefore, these developments were much awaited and constituted a big step for millions of migrant workers in the country.

However, the reform did not address all the long-standing issues, as it only applies to around 6.7 million migrant workers. 3.6 million domestic workers, farmers, shepherds, home guards, and private drivers remain excluded. In addition, the reform still contains restrictions whereby workers can only transfer sponsorship without the consent of the sponsor after completing one year of contract or upon the expiry of the work contract. Domestic workers face more restrictive conditions to change an employer within two years of the contract. Moreover, the reform did not lift all restrictions to exit and re-enter visas, especially for domestic workers.

Workers excluded from labour protections

Since 2017, Qatar has engaged in a set of important reforms to abolish the kafala system and extend labour protections to migrant workers in the country. In January 2020, Qatar adopted two ministerial decrees allowing employees to change employers at any time during their contract (by removing the No Objection Certificate) and to leave the country either temporarily or permanently without having to obtain the permission of their employers (by abolishing the exit visa requirement). In addition, domestic workers are now given a standard employment contract and receive pay slips from their employers.

On 20 March 2021, Qatar’s non-discriminatory minimum wage came into force, applying to all workers, of all nationalities, in all sectors, including domestic workers.

In addition, the reforms established labour courts to resolve complaints regarding the non-payment of wages, and a Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund was created.

At workplace level, committees of workers have been elected to address workers’ complaints while joint committees were established at sectoral level (including hospitality, construction, security, and transport).

Finally, Qatar has established a dispute settlement system accessible to migrant workers.

Workers excluded from labour protections

Palestinians’ access to work in Israel and the illegal settlements is tightly controlled through a repressive permit system, security checks and checkpoints. Only Palestinians with valid work permits can be “legally” employed by Israeli businesses. Out of the estimated 133,000 Palestinian workers in Israel and the illegal settlements, roughly 94,000 had a work permit. The overwhelming majority (99%) of permit holders are men, and most work in the construction sector.

Permits are issued for the duration of up to six months but can be arbitrarily annulled at any time by employers or Israel’s security services. Employers often used the threat of annulling permits to discipline workers who join unions, demand rights, or are involved in any form of political activity.

Right to establish and join a trade unionUnion-busting

100%

All 19 countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Union-busting

In April 2021, a waste-sorting plant for the city of Jerusalem operating in the Atarot settlement industrial zone undermined workers’ rights. Some 110 of its Palestinian workers joined Maan Union to fight against exploitative working conditions. Employers used financial constraints imposed by COVID-19 to weaken workers’ unionising efforts. Dozens of workers were forced to take leave of absence without pay, others were to stay on the factory grounds without appropriate arrangements if they were to keep their jobs, and nine workers were fired, including union leaders.

Union-busting

In 2021, a number of workers who tried to form trade unions in Oman were subjected to arbitrary decisions by their employers to prevent and obstruct them from forming trade unions; these decisions included dismissals and transfers to remote locations.

Union-busting

On 11 July 2021, the Ministry of Electricity in Iraq issued a directive banning trade union committees and instructing employees in public-owned companies not to engage in such committees under penalty of criminal prosecution. In addition, the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Minerals issued disciplinary warnings against two union leaders in retaliation for their unionising efforts.

Union-busting

While shortly before, in June 2021, elections for employee delegates were held throughout the country, union members of the Webhelp and Sitel Group call centres in Morocco were unfairly dismissed. At Sitel, employees who had created a union office with the Union Marocaine des Travailleurs (UMT) were dismissed or suspended without pay. At Webhelp, employees attempting to form unions at various worksites faced intimidation and pressure from management.

Right to trade union activities

100%

All 19 countries impeded the registration of unions.

No change from 2021

Right to trade union activities

On 11 May 2021, the Alexandria Spinning and Weaving Company refused to allow Ashraf Nassef, head of the workers’ trade union committee, and Faraj Al-Najjar, the union’s treasurer, to enter the company to speak to their members. This followed an incident on 4 March 2021 when management transferred seven members of the company’s union committee from their technical jobs to administrative security because of their union activities. The seven trade union members were Faraj Saeed, vice chairman of the trade union committee; Mahmoud Ibrahim El-Gohari, treasurer of the trade union committee; Mohamed Al-Masry, board member; Mohamed Mohamed Ibrahim, assistant treasurer; Mohamed Youssef, board member; Magdy Marei, board member; and Tariq Bakr, board member.

Right to trade union activities

On 31 December 2020, the Jordanian authorities had proceeded to the arbitrary dissolution of the Jordanian Teachers’ Association (JTA). While the administrative decision was finally reversed on 31 October 2021 by the Amman Court of Appeal, JTA was still impeded from operating and representing teachers in the country, as none of the JTA board members were able to resume their trade union activities.

Right to trade union activities

Since 2020, all independent unions in Iraq are unable to operate. On 12 October 2020, the Iraqi Ministry of Labour published letter No. 11367 imposing a trade union monopoly in Iraq and instructing government administrative bodies not to deal with any union other than the officially recognised General Federation of Iraqi Workers.

Right to trade union activities

In Egypt, all independent unions were dissolved in March 2018. Since then, many have faced countless administrative hurdles and in 2022 were still seeking official registration with the authorities. Where a yellow union already existed in the workplace, unions encountered further difficulties, with employers claiming that under the 2017 law, only one trade union committee can be established, thus preventing the formation of a new union.

Right to strikeProsecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

95%

95% of countries violated the right to strike.

Compared with 94% in 2021

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 5 October 2021, on the occasion of the World Teachers’ Day Celebrations, the Jordanian security forces arrested and detained fourteen leading members of the Jordanian Teachers’ Association (JTA). Riot police were deployed to stop peacefully demonstrating teachers denouncing the crackdown on trade union rights. The fourteen members were: Ahmad Ali Ahmad Alzaboun, head of the JTA; Nasser Nawasra, vice president of the JTA; and the following members of the JTA Council: Ghaleb Mansour Abu Qudia; Nidal Awwad Al Hisa; Kifah Suleiman Abu Farhan; Feras Awad Shteiwi Al Sarhan; Basil Mahmoud Al Houroub; Sulaiman Farhan Jaber Al Hayyer; Ibrahim Shaker Khalaf Assaf; Adbassalam assan Moussa Ayasra; Mustapha Annabeh; Iyad Albustanji; Moatassem Abdelrahman Beshtawy; and Noureddin Yusuf.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In August 2021, employees at Pelephone and Bezeq International, two Israeli telecommunications companies, organised a strike near the controlling shareholder's house. They were forcibly expelled by the police, who also arrested several striking workers.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 28 September 2021, Egyptian security forces cracked down on a peaceful strike at Universal for Electrical Appliances. Ten days before, about 2,000 workers had begun a sit-in at the company’s headquarters following the death of a colleague from a heart attack after working overtime because of financial pressure. The workers had not been paid for two months.

On 28 September, security forces surrounded the sit-in, closed the gates, and prevented workers from going out even to buy food. Hours earlier, security forces raided the houses of three workers: Saeed Abdel Qader, Said Mohamed Abdel Latif and Mahmoud Ahmed Haridy, who was recovering at home after having fallen into a diabetic coma. The three were taken into custody. Haridy’s daughter followed her father to the Warraq police station and inquired after her him, but officers who were at her home less than an hour earlier denied knowledge of the incident. A non-commissioned officer advised her to go to the Imbaba police station, where she was told that her father had been taken to the headquarters of the National Security Agency, a special police force, notorious for human rights violations, involved in policing so-called “national security threats”, including independent labour movements.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 14 February 2022, people in the Karma Bani Saeed district, Iraq, demonstrated in front of the governorate building, demanding the provision of health services. Police forces dispersed the protest, using excessive force and leaving several demonstrators with severe injuries. The negotiating delegation was arrested, including trade unionist Muhannad Al-Saeedi, a member of the Dhi Qar Oil Company workers union and a member of the General Union of Oil and Gas Workers in Iraq of the General Federation of Trade Unions.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In May 2021, Algerian firefighters went on strike to demand an increase in their wages and an improvement in their working conditions. The Ministry of Interior announced the suspension of 230 firefighters and their immediate prosecution, considering their protests "a betrayal of the duties and responsibilities entrusted to them".

Right to strikeDismissals for participating in strike action

95%

95% of countries violated the right to strike.

Compared with 94% in 2021

Dismissals for participating in strike action

In Iran, 700 workers at a Tehran Oil Refining Company were fired on 22 June 2021 for participating in workplace strikes, which were part of a sweeping strike action occurring across Iran in which an estimated 20,000 oil and petrochemical workers took part across 11 provinces. Many workers from various industrial centres had joined the “1400 Campaign”, demanding higher wages, an increase in leave and holidays, and better health and safety conditions. These were longstanding demands that have so far been ignored by management and the Iranian regime’s authorities.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

On 2 August 2021, Egyptian razor manufacturer Lord International Co. terminated 38 workers who took part in a strike involving 2,000 workers at the company that began in late July 2021 and brought production in two out of the company’s three factories to a halt. In a statement, the company also said that it had referred some of the striking workers for internal investigation.

The striking workers were calling for a minimum profit share rate and for their annually renewable contracts to be changed to permanent ones. They also demanded that management guarantee protesting workers would not face disciplinary action or dismissal. Instead, the company announced that workers who had been identified as the “instigators of the strike” would be fired or suspended, and that those suspended could also face disciplinary measures and further investigation.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

In April 2021, the Algerian Post Office threatened the workers on strike in Algiers with dismissal without notice. The postal employees had organised a one-week strike to protest against the government’s delay in fulfilling its promises regarding the disbursement of grants and incentive bonuses to workers.

Right to free speech and assembly

84%

84% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa restricted free speech and assembly.

Compared with 83% in 2021

Right to free speech and assembly

Samira Nasser and Sabah Hassan, two members of the executive office of the General Federation of Iraq Trade Unions (GFITU) and employed in public sector companies, were accused of defamation for Facebook posts and were subsequently referred for administrative investigation on “malicious charges”. Both were demoted and transferred to other public companies. Samira Nasser, who worked as an agricultural engineer in a dairy factory, was transferred to the hydraulic industries company. GFITU organised a solidarity campaign and managed to have the transfer reversed after more than two months.

Right to free speech and assembly

On 14 January 2022, which corresponds to the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, dozens of thousands of Tunisians opposed to the dictatorship took to the streets but were unable to demonstrate, as thousands of police blocked access to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the capital's main avenue, and used water cannons, truncheons, tear gas and arrests – with physical violence – against the protesters. Some of the protesters arrested were released the same day while others were to be referred to the courts.

Right to justice

79%

79% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa denied workers access to justice.

Compared with 83% in 2021

Right to justice

The Tunis Court of First Instance annulled the decision of the UGTT National Council (which took place in Hammamet from 24 to 26 August 2020) to convene an extraordinary non-elective congress, claiming that the statutes of this trade union organisation do not provide for the organisation of this type of congress by its executive bureau. This is a serious judicial interference in UGTT’s right to freely organise its activities.

Right to justice

Concerns grew for the well-being of Esmail Abdi, former secretary general of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA), who has been imprisoned on numerous occasions since 2006 on trumped up charges of “propaganda against the state” and “espionage”. He was sentenced to five years in 2016 on fictitious charges of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”. To prevent his release, on 11 January 2021, at the end of his previous sentence, the Iranian authorities executed a suspended ten-year sentence related to a 2011 case , thereby imprisoning him until 2031. Long imprisonment and ill treatment in the prison have severely affected his health. In the meantime, Esmail’s family (wife, two daughters and a son) were being harassed and victimised by the security forces and considered to be at serious risk.

Right to justice

Mourad Ghedia, president of Algerian union SNAPAP/CGATA Justice Sector Workers, was arrested on 5 April 2021 and placed under a detention order in El-Harrach prison. On the date of his arrest, Mr Ghedia went to the Bab Ezzouar police station in Algiers following police summonses. He was immediately arrested and brought before a judge; he had no access to legal representation. The judge placed him under a detention order without providing reasons for his incarceration. He was sentenced by the court to a six-month suspended sentence. Following a large international campaign, he was eventually released after two months and ten days of detention.

Mr Ghedia, a clerk by profession, had previously been suspended from his employment in 2012 for almost three years, along with 57 other people, for taking strike action. Following complaints to the ILO, Mr Ghedia and the suspended members were reinstated, and he resumed his duties as registrar between 2015 and 2018, when he was again dismissed without cause.

Right to civil liberties

47%

47% of countries arrested and detained workers.

Compared with 44% in 2021

Right to civil liberties

On 11 March 2022, Haleh Safarzadeh and Alireza Saghafi, who both serve as members of the Centre for Workers' Rights in Iran, were arrested, together with 17 other students and labour activists, during a private gathering at Mr Saghafi’s workplace. They were imprisoned at Kachuei Prison in Karaj. While the activists were later released, Haleh Safarzadeh and Alireza Saghafi were held in detention in one of the harshest prisons for serious criminal offences.

The two labour leaders had already been arrested, together with other worker rights’ defenders, on 26 April 2019 while meeting peacefully in a public park. They were put on trial by the Karaj Revolutionary Court on 24 August 2019 on the spurious charge of conducting “propaganda against the system” and sentenced to one year in prison.

Right to civil liberties

Farzaneh Zilabi, the defence lawyer for the Haft Tappeh sugar cane workers in Iran, was sentenced by the Ahvaz Revolutionary Court to one year in prison on 13 September 2021 for “propaganda activities against the state”. In addition to the prison sentence, Zilabi received a two-year ban on leaving the country. On 16 May 2021, she was issued a six-month ban from practicing law.

Following the privatisation of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Agro-Industrial Complex in 2016, workers and the syndicate organised a number of strikes, most recently in August 2021, against the continuous unpaid wages of employees and the alleged corruption of the former owners.

Right to civil liberties

Abdel-Wahab Radwan, vice chairman of the Syndicate Committee of Public Transport Authority Employees in Egypt, was arrested in May 2021 because of his trade union activities. The trade union leader was still in pretrial detention in 2022 pending the hearing of his case. He was charged with “being a member of a terrorist group and misusing social media”.

Right to civil liberties

Fellah Hamoudi, member of the Executive Bureau of SNAPAP and CGATA and president of the Office of the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), was arrested on 19 February 2022 in the wilaya of Tlemcen. Fellah Hamoudi had been continuously harassed over the past months in connection to his statements on the “Al Magharibia” television channel. The prosecutor found Hamoudi’s comments concerning the number of prisoners of conscience in Algeria offensive to the Ministry of Interior and “false or malicious”. Hamoudi was also accused of running an “unaccredited” association in connection to his position in the LADDH. His home was searched by the police on 12 January 2022, during which time his laptop and personal phone were confiscated. On 20 February 2022, the Tlemcen Court convicted him and sentenced him to a fine of one hundred thousand dinars and imprisonment of three years.

Violent attacks on workers

42%

Workers experienced violent attacks in 42% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Compared with 44% in 2021

Violent attacks on workers

On 14 February 2022, Muhammad Al-Saidi, a member of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Workers in Iraq and a member of the General Union of Workers in the Oil and Gas Sector, was severely beaten during a peaceful demonstration in Dhi Qar, and several workers were unlawfully detained. Over the past year, strikes in oil and electricity sectors were systematically disrupted by security forces. Workers and trade union leaders have been repeatedly subjected to internal investigation procedures and disciplinary measures for their legitimate trade union activities. In some cases, they have been transferred to other companies or other positions and threatened with legal penalties.

Violent attacks on workers

On 7 September 2021, between 1,000 and 2,000 of migrant workers from Nepal and India employed by Nasser S. Al Hajri Corporation W.L.L (NSH), Gulf Asia Contracting LLC, and the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) staged a week-long protest in Bahrain over poor working and living conditions after one of them suffered sunstroke and had to be hospitalised. The companies called the police and their own security personnel to retaliate against the strikers. Security personnel began to intimidate and harass the workers. Some workers were severely beaten, sustaining acute injuries, including bloody bruising. Public access to the workers’ camp, based in an isolated area in Sitra, had been denied since the protest began.

Violent attacks on workers

In May 2021, Algerian security forces cracked down on a sit-in organised by the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed to demand jobs and employment assistance measures. Police used excessive force against protesting unemployed workers to disperse them, inuring some workers.

Murders

Workers were murdered in Iraq.

Murders

Following a peaceful demonstration by the oil and gas workers in Dhi Qar, Iraq, on 14 February 2022, Ahmad Ali Al-Zaidi, a trade unionist and employee at an oil facility, was assassinated in retaliation for his activism during the demonstrations. Over the past year, strikes in oil and electricity sectors were systematically disrupted by security forces. Workers and trade union leaders have been repeatedly subjected to internal investigation procedures and disciplinary measures for their legitimate trade unions activities. In some cases, they have been transferred to other companies or other positions and threatened with legal penalties.

Workers clean the Museum of the Future in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Migrant workers in the country suffer severe and frequent labour abuse.Karim SAHIB / AFP

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