Sumera B Reshi
Gleaming Skyscrapers, stunning castles and magnificent road networks, this is the tree where from we laborers get the money. This is the money which brings a smile on the faces and sparkle in the eyes of our families. But no one knows how we take the money from this tree, said one the laborers looking up to a tall building where he works in Abu Dhabi.
Life for a migrant worker under Kafala Sponsorship System means living under your employer’s total control over every aspect of your existence – from opening a bank account to changing jobs, and even being allowed to leave the country. Recruiters trick the migrant laborers once they set foot on foreign soil. These migrant workers left their home, their kith and kin to build a fortune but they are deprived of dignity and ruined of their trust. Each year recruiters or agencies lure them with huge money and a standard living in GCC region but they become the victims of appalling living and working conditions, they leave their homes with a dream but return back home in a coffin.
The Gulf is a major destination for this global flow of migrant labor, where workers leave their homes to work temporarily in wealthier economies. But this region is not the exception. Worldwide, there are 232 million international migrants and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that about 21 million of them are trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived.
Undeniably, with the globalization of trade and commerce has come the globalization of labor. In manufacturing industries, companies have outsourced production of everything from textiles to toys and electronics to developing countries, where wages are lower, even if human rights may not be respected and working conditions can be harsh. In the Middle East, due to the construction boom, the dynamic is similar but transposed — it is the workers who are imported rather than the goods they make.
As per the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) 600,000 migrant workers are tricked and trapped into forced labor across the Middle East. Since Qatar is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the tiny and uber-wealthy Gulf emirate has increasingly come under scrutiny for its failure to protect the human rights of its huge foreign workforce.
Qatar’s 1.8 million foreign workers—who vastly outnumber the country’s 300,000 native citizens—are frequently deprived of wages, trapped into permanent debt, exposed to hazardous working conditions and denied the right to unionize. Approximately 1,000 foreign workers have died in Qatar since 2012, according to Qatar’s government. Independent human rights organizations claim that the figure is even higher. Qatar is spending 400 million quid a week on the huge infrastructure to be ready for 2022, however, out of this huge sum, they just pay 8 quid a day to the laborers who make it happen.
It is no more hidden that the large-scale use of foreign labor is widespread through the Persian Gulf, where traditional royal elites, businesses and private individuals have accumulated vast wealth despite the region’s small domestic workforce. Since Qatar has massive natural gas resources, its GDP per capita is the highest in the world. Not only Qatar, other GCC countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also accrued wealth beyond limits, thus enabled them to invest heavily in new infrastructure work, but the region lacks a sufficient indigenous workforce to operate these projects. Moreover, the Gulf States provide hearty benefits to their own people so they feel infra dig while working in the field. Therefore, the demand for migrant workers is substantial. This construction boom across the GCC region has been stimulated by a massive influx of workers, mainly from Asia. Due to poor economic prospects in their home countries and the perception that a steady income can be easily in the Gulf, migrant workers are drawn into the trap. They then begin to realize their dream is a waking nightmare.
Moreover, between 2010 and 2012, an estimated 700 Indian workers died in Qatar and authorities in Nepal also claim that hundreds of Nepali migrant workers have perished in the Middle East. In this context, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) predicted that if the labor laws aren’t reformed and properly enforced, nearly 4000 workers could die on construction projects related to the 2022 FIFA World Cup alone. According to ITUC report, workers are often denied access to water and shade and the accommodation reserved for them is appalling, filthy and dehumanizing.
As per ILO report workers in the UAE, Jordon, Lebanon, and Kuwait are ‘tricked and trapped’ into forced labor and sexual exploitation and the constraints that prevent them from leaving.
ILO Deputy Regional Director for the Arab States said, “Human trafficking can only be effectively tackled by addressing the systemic gaps in labor migration governance across the region”.
Ironically, the Middle East hosts millions of migrant workers, who in some cases exceed the number of national workers substantially. As stated by the ILO, Qatar has 94 per cent migrant workers, in Saudi Arabia, the figure is 50 per cent and in Jordon and Lebanon, the figures are significantly higher especially in construction and domestic work sectors.
These migrant workers can’t change their jobs because they need permission from their sponsor, thus they are trapped in their jobs. They spend whole of their lives in paying off the debt they owe to the agents in their home countries. Moreover, they don’t have citizenship or political rights nor they can exit the country as their passports are usually seized by the employers upon arrival, therefore these migrant workers are trapped in a ‘virtual slavery’ or ‘indentured servitude’.
Since Saudi Arabia is the GCC’s economic powerhouse, human rights organizations have documented widespread labor rights abuses that include long working hours, wage theft and violence against domestic workers, however, nothing concrete has been done so far to reform or improve the conditions of the migrant workers. Keeping the brutal conditions of the migrant workers in view, Qatar faced lot more criticism from all quarters over the treatment of workers over its FIFA World Cup preparations. So Qatar promised to reform Kafala System but nothing much was done in this regard. Still the employers hold their passport thus trapping nearly 1.8 of Qatar’s 2.1 million residents with virtually no legal protection.
Regrettably, such stunning figure depicts that the need is for crucial reforms and since Qatari economy is greatly dependent on migrant workers, especially in the construction sector. Experts believe that without this foreign workforce, the Qatari “miracle” of the prompt urbanization, sky-high average incomes and rapid modernization would have been impossible. As Qatar is on the infrastructure binge, the number of migrant workers is increasing so has the cost of providing them with even basic labor protections. The phenomenon has amplified the economic costs of real reform.
Furthermore, nearly 7 million Indians live and work in GCC region, thus account for more than 60 per cent of all the global non-resident Indians (NRIs). An analysis conducted by India spend depicted that an Indian who work and reside in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is at 10 times the risk of death compared to an Indian living in the US. Such a plight is due to poor working conditions in the Gulf region. A stealth photo-feature by Farhad Berahman (Farhad Berahman is an Iranian photographer and artist based in the UK) in 2014 documented the pitiable living conditions of migrant laborers from South Asian countries, especially from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These migrant laborers come to this arid land with sweet dreams but soon they realize they have landed in a dessert rather than a paradise. They are forced to work 14 hours even when the temperature goes over 50 degrees centigrade.
As stated by the Global Rights Index 2015, workers in the GCC region and North Africa are among the worlds’ worst treated. Workers bear many of the violations which make the Middle East and North Africa worst region to work. They are denied basic fundamental rights thus are subjected to modern slavery.
Migrant workers are been paid less, forced to live and work in sordid and risky conditions. Such a treatment is rampant in the region which appears shimmering from the other side but is stale inside. Well said by M. K. Gandhi…Poverty is the worst form of violence and this poverty forces them to leave their home for to fill their bellies. Back home, recruitment agencies make exaggerated promises and don’t provide adequate information about the treatment and conditions in the destination countries. On arrival, these migrant workers find themselves in a different world, far from reality.
In the name of work, migrants are subjected to slavery. As per the Global Slavery Index, Qatar tops the list of having highest rates of modern slaves. Data compiled by Walk Free Foundation reveals that Qatar has the fifth highest concentrations of slaves globally, measure at 1.35 per cent of its population. Forced labor, especially in the construction sector is one of the foremost forms of modern slavery in Qatar, indicating the demand for cheap labor to build extensive infrastructure for the 2022FIFA World Cup and National Vision 2030.
Research, surveys and analysis done by international human and labor rights organizations reveal that the key problem is the recruitment process, which actually creates ‘debt bondage’ for many workers, as they take out huge loans to pay for their passage to the Persian Gulf.
“Since past six months, I am working here without the visa. I work on peanuts, repairing lanes and bylanes. I know I am illegally here but I am completely helpless. Since six months, my employers haven’t given me my passport nor do I have a national identity card which is issued once you get the visa. I am on tenterhooks, don’t know what to do,” said Rehman who works on a construction site in Abu Dhabi industrial area.
Owing to the rising international pressure from Human rights groups, the UAE passed labor law reforms in January 2016 that aim to abolish the Kafala system for migrant workers. The reforms are not foolproof because the reforms don’t apply to domestic workers who make up 15 per cent of the workforce. The reforms still have loopholes which the authorities need to address. But till real change takes place, scores of people will be lured to the glittering Persian Gulf with a fake dream and harsh reality and who knows how many will return back in coffins instead of a fortune.