The migrant slave workers of the Arab world

Migrant deaths in Arab world

By Graham Peebles

Given the choice, few people would leave their families and friends and migrate from their homeland. The tens of thousands that pay unscrupulous “agents” and criminal gangs to transport them hundreds or thousands of miles are compelled to do so to find work and to earn money to support themselves and their loved ones at home.

The Middle East and North African (MENA) countries are some of the destinations of choice for men and women seeking work. Women look for domestic and child-care work, while employment in the construction industry is the goal of the tens thousands of men from Southeast Asia living in stifling poverty.

Migrant workers have become the majority workforce in many Arab Gulf states – wealthy countries with weak or non-existent domestic-worker rights, destructive gender attitudes that suppress and control women, and endemic racism. This poisonous cocktail, rooted in prejudice and ignorance, fuels and justifies exploitation, including forced labour, physical and sexual abuse, and extreme mistreatment by employers.

It is the migrant workers who are building the shining, modernist cities across the region, and the 2022 World Cup stadiums in Qatar. And it is they who are the main providers of domestic care for middle and upper class households in the region.

… migrants are “lured into jobs that either didn’t exist or that were offered under conditions that were very different from what they were promised in the first place”. (International Labour Organization)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 53 million domestic workers worldwide, of which 84 per cent are women, accounting for “7.5 per cent of women’s wage employment”. The number of domestic workers in the MENA states in comparison to the population totals is staggering. As the ILO states, “labour migration in this part of the world is unique in terms of its sheer scale and its exponential growth in recent years”. The highest numbers (according to the International Institute for Humanitarian Law) are in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where migrant workers comprise around 95 per cent of the workforce. In Lebanon, a country with a population of around four million people, there are roughly 200,000 migrant domestic workers, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In Saudi Arabia the ILO estimate that 50 per cent of workers are migrants, while Kuwait has 660,000, and a population of around three million. Similar or larger ratios are found throughout the region.

Migrants to MENA countries come from Asia – Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and India, and to a lesser degree from East Africa – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Somalia. These are countries where huge numbers of people, often from marginalized groups, are living in extreme poverty, where illiteracy numbers are high, education is poor and opportunities are rare. With little or no options, such people are at the mercy of criminal gangs who see them as objects, commodities to be profited from. There are thought to be more people in slavery now than at any time in history. Such are the consequences of a system that breeds greed and separation and places all value in profit, even over life.

Deceived and trapped into debt and bonded labour from the start, prospective migrant workers are duped into leaving their homes for Beirut, Dubai, Kuwait City, Riyadh or Sana’a. Naïve and desperate young men and women are promised they will be handsomely paid, that the streets are paved with dollars, that every apartment has hot and cold running water, that designer clothes, smart phones and flat screen TVs are aplenty, and that you too will live the good life, easily repay your loan to the agent and, crucially, help drag your family out of grinding poverty. With hollow promises like these, as the ILO says, migrants are “lured into jobs that either didn’t exist or that were offered under conditions that were very different from what they were promised in the first place” by unscrupulous recruitment agents. The reality for many is one of modern day slavery, imprisonment and violence; mistreatment that in many cases leads some to take their own lives. In Lebanon alone, migrant domestic workers are “dying at a rate of more than one a week – often by throwing themselves off balconies”, according to the Guardian newspaper. On the scaffolding around the glitzy building projects for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC) estimates that 1,300 Nepalese construction workers died last year.

The death sites of Qatar

In Qatar, abuse of migrant workers, who account for nearly 90 per cent of the population of 1.9 million, is widespread. And little has changed to improve matters since being awarded the much-prized 2022 World Cup. Human Rights Watch state, that Qatar “has not delivered on its pledges to improve migrant workers’ rights”. In 2010 the country’s rulers asserted that their successful World Cup bid “could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform”.

Every year over 100,000 men from Nepal head to Qatar to work on building projects across the realm, but they “are not experienced at this type of work, which is much more risky than other jobs”. Appalling conditions, mistreatment by employees and low pay lead “some to commit suicide”, the Guardian reports. In fact, many recount how their salaries are withheld, or not paid at all, their passports confiscated to prevent them from leaving and how they are “deprived of the ID cards they need to move around freely without fear of arrest”.

Bodies of dead Nepalese men are returning home at a rate of three or four a day. It is a mystery why these fit young men are dying in such large numbers, especially when “the most common cause of death given on forms is some form of heart failure”. A probable contributory factor is the appalling working and living conditions that the men are forced to endure, working 12-hour shifts in 50 degree Celsius temperatures, and often without water. After work “they return to filthy and overcrowded accommodation in the Sanaya industrial centre, where the stench of raw sewage is overpowering and workers allege 600 men share two kitchens.

“The kitchens are infested with mosquitoes, cockroaches and bugs,” said KBB, one of the camp’s residents. No wonder employees, like Ganesh Bishwakarma, aged 16, are falling like flies. He died after just two months in Qatar. Too young to legally migrate, the recruitment agent forged a passport stating Ganesh was aged 20 and a job as a cleaner was his. The cost of this life-shifting opportunity, including false documents and travel – an extortionate 150,000 rupees (1,500 dollars), to be re-paid, dead or alive, with 36 per cent interest. The debt now falls on Ganesh’s family to somehow service, trapping them into bonded labour as their son was similarly enslaved.

Entrapment

All MENA states, apart from Yemen, are signatories to the Palermo Protocol, which clearly defines the conditions of trafficking and whose articles are legally binding, which means and employees who contravene them are guilty of human trafficking. In what could prove to be a significant action, a recent high profile case involving Meshael Alayban a Saudi Arabian princess, has highlighted the fact that the treatment of many migrant domestic workers by their Arab employers qualifies as human trafficking.

According to the BBC, the “Princess is accused of forcing a Kenyan woman to work 16 hours a day while paying her far less than what she was originally promised”. She also took away “the woman’s passport, precluding her escape”. The two-year contract guaranteed the women “1,600 US dollars a month, for eight-hour work, five days a week”, but as is often the case she was paid much less – “220 dollars a month and made to work twice as long”. The unnamed Kenyan escaped on a visit to America with the royal household, and has brought a case in California (where they were staying) against the regal Alayban for trafficking. She faces a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.

The vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to human trafficking in MENA countries, beyond the underlying prejudicial causes, are due to two primary factors: the Dickensian kafala (Arabic for “bail”) employment system, allied to the lack of labour protection and legal redress, and the initial recruitment process, with agents extending loans to prospectve migrants for employment fees, forging passports and other documentation and travel costs. This creates debt bondage, trapping the unsuspecting into years of bonded labour.

The kafala sponsorship system forms the legal basis for both residency and employment for migrant domestic workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and in Lebanon and Jordon. Under the scheme the employer, to all extent and purposes, “owns” the migrant worker, who cannot change employers, unless the sponsor decides to sell them on to someone – a lucrative add-on for employers and a form of trafficking that fuels resistance to the schemes abolition, vehemently called for by human rights groups and all right minded thinkers.

Legal ambiguity

Labour laws for migrant domestic workers in MENA countries, where they exist at all, vary in structure but not in inadequacy or lack of enforcement. All domestic work occurs beyond the protection of national labour laws, and anti-trafficking laws designed to protect migrant workers from abuse are not enforced.

Under Lebanese law for example, migrant domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house without the permission of their employers, making it possible, and in many cases likely, for employers to imprison workers, exploit them and force them to work beyond their contract, with the kafala preventing the innocent victim from reporting the abuse without risking losing residency status. It is a legal trap not confined to Lebanon, which contributes to human trafficking by creating conditions of compelled service and forced labour.

Confinement, dependency, weak labour laws, plus migrant domestic workers’ inability to speak the local language or understand their rights under international law (what few exist), make them acutely vulnerable. A Filipina domestic worker who tried to escape abusive employers in Lebanon told the ILO, according to CNN, “my employer broke my elbow and then tied my hands behind my back. They left me one day long in my room and put a camera there. He threatened me: ‘I’ll accuse you of stealing money and ask for my money back, and they will throw you in jail’,” she said.

Another Filipina domestic worker interviewed in a detention centre in Kuwait told the ILO that her employer had raped her. “I went to the doctors and filed a complaint at the police, and then returned to work the next day. He reported to the authorities that I had run away, and the police arrested me,” she said. “My employer tells me that if I drop the rape charges, he will make sure that I am not deported.”

In the MENA states, labour laws need to be introduced, and where they exist need to be enforced. The ILO speaks of signs of positive change. It says “governments and other groups have stepped up efforts to combat forced labour and human trafficking in recent years, including through the passage of anti-trafficking legislation.” However, “shortcomings persist in applying laws and prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of human trafficking”, it adds.

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