The Memo: McDonald’s and Amazon linked to trafficking of workers in Saudi Arabia

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McDonald’s and Amazon linked to trafficking of workers in Saudi Arabia

James Westmacott – 20 November 2023

Inhumane conditions, staggeringly low pay, and seemingly no way out. Those were just a few of the alleged claims made by a number of foreign workers working in the Middle East for some of the world’s most recognisable brands such as McDonald’s, Amazon, InterContinental Hotels, and Chuck E Cheese. As well as squalid camp conditions and the harsh financial penalties imposed on employees, many of the workers also have no legal protection over their vulnerable position. It might be hard to imagine how we ever got here. After all, are legal protections not in place to look after vulnerable workers merely seeking food on the table and a roof over their heads?

Part of the problem is that a number of labour supply companies acting on behalf of the major conglomerates when it came to recruitment and implementation of work, had been exploiting the kafala system prevalent in that part of the world. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the system constitutes a mix of labour and immigration laws which afford employers significant control over the employment and immigration status of migrant workers. The system dictates that all workers arriving in the Gulf countries must have an in-country sponsor, which traditionally comprises of their employer, since without a guaranteed job, they would not be entitled to move to the region. This leaves employers in control of the individual worker’s visa and subsequent legal status, as passports can be stripped and labour conditions left begrimed, with companies facing very few legal repercussions.

Whilst the Gulf Cooperation Council (the economic union for Arab Gulf States) have made subtle changes within the realm of labour reform, the reality remains that the international contractors and companies like McDonald’s and Amazon are falling far short of expected ESG standards. Fair wages, timely payment clauses, freedom of movement, and suitable living and working conditions must therefore now be the driving factors behind the strive for social change.