Modern Day Slavery in the Gulf

Posted on October 21, 2013


By Dimitri Gkiokas, Special to CNN

[I} recently left the Middle East after a decade in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Both are places of invariable desert yellow monotony and mind-blowing heat, with a fine touch of 90 percent humidity during the summer months – unbearable for most, but apparently not the tens of thousands of Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi construction workers melting in the heat of the Arabian Peninsula.

The prize for their back-breaking work: $5 a day for working in appalling conditions12 hours a day 7 days-a-week; for frequently being deceived and blackmailed by rogue employment agencies back home; for signing contracts they cannot readand effectively being held hostage by an all-mighty employer in their new destination country; for being fully marginalized by the host societies; for living with hundreds of other workers, and as the BBC notes, sometimes six or seven crowded into a 3-by-3-meter room in dreadful desert camps without proper sanitation; for abandoning all hope of ever enjoying the love of family life.

Like all expats in the Gulf, I could see the daily convoys of beat-up buses in jolly colors (but no A/C), packed with exhausted workers, some looking out the window at the Bentleys, the Ferraris, the Cayennes stopped next to them at the traffic light. From the comforting distance of my bank office, $5 morning cafe-latte in hand, I often wondered how we expatriates tolerate their mistreatment.

More from CNN: Freedom Project

In the Arab Gulf, employment law is elementary and rarely enforced, while trade unions are forbidden. The UAE and Qatar have both ratified the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, but migrant workers are still treated like cattle, their salaries kept at the World Bank’s poverty-line.

Employers confiscate workers’ passports and exploit the kafala sponsorship law, leaving immigrants at the mercy of their employer with virtually no chance of escape. A complex network of commercial interests permeates the region’s social and economic fabric, with ruling family members and friends holding – as mandated by law – large shares in foreign companies’ subsidiaries and joint ventures. Western powers have been courting their protégés for decades in exchange for black-gold and construction projects’ baksheesh, with “return on investment” overriding any need to provide decent working conditions. [Please click here to read more.]