Manama: A Bahraini proposal to forge a consensus among Gulf states on alternatives to the controversial sponsorship system and for imposing a residence cap on foreigners has been endorsed by the six GCC countries.
In response to the Bahraini proposal presented before GCC labour ministers at a recent meeting in Riyadh, a committee of GCC labour undersecretaries will be formed to carry out studies that will help the member states adopt similar policies.
The committee will follow up on suggestions made earlier to impose a five-year residence cap on the millions of unskilled labourers working in the Gulf countries.
Proposals put forward by the GCC labour ministers to help reduce the cultural, social and political impact of long-term foreign residents in the region were defeated in 2007 and 2008 by business leaders anxious about the effects of such a move on local economies.
Bahrain's Labour Minister Majeed Al Alawi, who led a campaign demanding a cap on the number of years expatriates could stay in the region, warned that the presence of massive numbers of expatriates for long periods in the Gulf was a posing real threat to the region's cultural and national identity.
Other issues to be investigated by the new committee include the adoption of standardised procedures for importing labour, narrowing differences in costs, and addressing obstacles facing the free movement of Gulf workers and employees in the six-nation alliance.
However, the toughest challenge for the committee will be finding 'acceptable' alternatives to kafala, the sponsorship system used as the legal basis for residency and employment.
Under the system, likened to modern slavery by Al Alawi, foreign workers are given an entry visa and a residence permit only if they have a GCC sponsor.
They must only work for the sponsor and are entirely dependent on him in order to remain in the country. While the kafala system was initially created to provide governments with a means to regulate the labour market in the GCC, critics charge that it leads to the exploitation of foreign workers, particularly unskilled labourers and women employed in domestic services.
Bahrain announced in May said that it would move to scrap the system on August 1, a decision that sparked massive and vociferous protests by the business community and calls for Al Alawi to resign.
In June, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai Police Chief, called for the abolition of the sponsorship system, saying that it saddled Emiratis with unnecessary responsibilities.
"Under the sponsorship system, Emiratis have become responsible for each and every detail of their employees' lives. This system has overburdened UAE nationals and made them accountable for their employees' problems and therefore it should be scrapped," he said.
However, UAE business leaders said that the decision would affect the interests of the private sector and alter the demographic structure.
"The percentage of the Emirati population in the UAE is well known. If five to six million people come in without sponsorship, what are the security procedures that will be taken to protect our country? The UAE's national interests are above those of international organisations," said Ahmad Saif Belhasa, chairman of the UAE Contractors Association.