Slavery’s modern face
by Robert Fulford, nationalpost.com, Aug. 16, 2014
Labour practices in Middle East nations show the meanness lying deep in their societies
The world doesn’t need more reasons to be angry at the governments of the Middle East, but the West should nevertheless know about their cruel treatment of labour. When we deal with these states, we should understand the meanness that lies deep in their societies — beginning with how they construct their gleaming buildings and how they treat their maids and nannies.
Much of the manual labour in these countries, and much of the domestic work, is performed by people who in the 19th century were known as indentured bond-slaves or coolies. The British Empire abolished slavery in the 1830s, the U.S. in the 1860s, but in 2014 much of the Middle East treats foreign workers as slaves. This week a journalist in Nepal wrote that “the kafala system keeps hundreds of thousands of Nepali in slave labour conditions.” It is widely accepted — and the more you learn about it, the worse it looks.
Kafala is a system that governs construction and domestic migrant labourers in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States. When workers arrive, they must immediately surrender their passports to their employers. In Saudi Arabia that applies as well to professionals, such as doctors.
From that point on, their rights resemble those of illegally imported prostitutes from Eastern Europe. Companies spend money to recruit workers, and claim that holding their passports guarantees they’ll fulfill their obligations. But Human Rights Watch says the system gives employers so much control that some of them force domestic workers to continue working against their will and prevent them from returning to their home countries. HRW believes that the kafala system makes some Saudi Arabians believe they have purchased “ownership.”
Andrew Gardner, an anthropologist at the University of Puget Sound and a specialist in Gulf States migration, notes that many migrants are simply not paid the wages promised to them. So they “abscond” from the only job they are legally allowed to hold and try to find something else. That makes them “illegals” under kafala rules, and they become targets of the police. Gardner says, “This is a vicious circle that I’ve been observing for over a decade.”
The secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, has said that the Gulf States have the most regressive labour relations. The employer decides when a worker can get a driver’s licence, rent a home, open a bank account or leave the country. Amnesty International reports some workers are so desperate to get back their passports that they sign false statements that they have received their wages. Nasser Beydoun, an Arab-American businessman from Detroit, went to Qatar to open a chain of restaurants and ended up writing a book, The Glass Palace: Illusions of Freedom and Democracy in Qatar, published in 2012. He said, “Foreign workers in Qatar are modern-day slaves to their local employers. The local Qatari owns you.”
The award of the 2022 World Cup has focused international attention on Qatar’s abusive labour practices, but there’s no sign it has improved them. For several months a cluster of international artists (including figures such as Janet Cardiff and Krzysztof Wodiczko) have been boycotting the Guggenheim Museum because of inhuman labour conditions in Abu Dhabi, where a new Guggenheim is going up. “Workers can’t come and go at will,” says an organizer of the boycott. “It’s like a prison.” They believe the scandal threatens to sully the Guggenheim’s reputation, but no plans to reform the operation in Abu Dhabi have been reported.
A sense of entitlement governs many Middle East employers. They feel they deserve to have their work done at rock-bottom prices by otherwise indigent foreigners. This attitude emerged clearly when the Insan Association, a human rights NGO in Lebanon, persuaded 250 employers of domestic workers to be interviewed.
Many of the respondents clearly lack the skills to manage others. When a problem arises, one employer said, “I solve the problem cordially. Sometimes I threaten her to go to the Employment Agency and sometimes I deduct from her salary.” Another said, “I call the agency and they give me tips like, ‘ Threaten her with sending her back to Ethiopia.’”
Migrant domestics apparently make their employers uneasy. There are employers who don’t like their nannies to have separate lives. Some forbid them to leave the house, even on their breaks. As elsewhere, employers retain the passports.
The most striking fact in this little survey dealt with the kafala system itself. More than half the respondents said it should be changed. They felt it was simply too burdensome for employers.