Modern-day slavery in the Persian Gulf

Trafficking word cloudThe Advocates for Human Rights receives a barrage of emails from across the globe, people who are looking for information and assistance in a wide variety of human rights issues. The requests for assistance are a window into the current human rights problems in the world, which oftentimes are virtually unknown outside of the country or region.

One example that I find especially heartbreaking is the modern day slavery that is happening in the Persian Gulf region. Through the Kafala system, a policy of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), citizens or companies sponsor “foreign” workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in a host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering the person to exploitation. The GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Every year, thousands migrate from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf region to seek employment. With some differences, the story of these workers repeats itself; people from the poorest parts of the world are toiling in sweat and blood in the shadow of unimaginable wealth. In such conditions, however, the international community enjoys investment incentives, luxurious shopping centers, and dreams of the World Cup (many of its facilities are built by migrant workers).

They Are Entrapped

The plight of migrant workers begins in their home countries when they are deceived in the recruitment process and promised liveable wages. Migrant workers usually take out large loans to pay the fees of local recruitment agencies that arrange their work contract and travel documents. While migrant workers are heavily dependant on their salaries to survive, they should devote most of their wages to service loans.

As a common practice, sponsors confiscate workers’ passports. Even when workers have their passports, they still must have their sponsor’s permission to leave the country. Migrant workers have limited options; continue in their jobs, or quit the job and work illegally for different employers. They have reported a culture of fear and intimidation in which there is no access to justice, especially for those who work illegally.

They Are Segregated and Exploited Slaves

Most migrant workers live in substandard conditions in remote areas. In Qatar, for instance, the segregation has been built through legislation by the Central Municipal Council (CMC). With the establishment of “family zones,” migrant workers have been banned from living in Doha; and have been prevented from enjoying public areas, such as shopping centers on certain days. Such laws legitimize negative stereotypes about migrant workers and have the effect of further entrenching segregation.

The World Cup Nightmare

In response to reports of worker’s deaths (in the World Cup facilities), the Qatari government commissioned a law firm to investigate. The recommendations of this investigation about legal reforms, however, have never been followed seriously. While the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants called for Qatar to repeal its Kafala system, it seems that the Qatari government intends to rename the system without removing its exploitative provisions. According to the latest report of the International Laborer Organization (“ILO”), Qatar has failed to observe the international standards regarding migrant workers. Two years prior, the ILO asked Qatar to take meaningful actions, otherwise a United Nations inquiry would be launched in 2017 that will make possible imposing international sanctions. As Human Rights Watch reported, Qatar has promised little and has delivered far less. By continuing in this way, the International Trade Union Confederation reports that, about 4,000 workers will die before the World Cup 2022.

Any will for change?

Considering the lack of protective measures for migrant workers, host countries must make fundamental changes in the Kafala system. In addition, they have enough financial means to ensure safe work, standard living conditions, and decent wages for foreign laborers. Simultaneously, migrant workers’ countries of origin have the duty to monitor the conditions of their citizens and provide them with proper consular support. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that international companies will acknowledge their responsibility for the miserable conditions of their migrant laborers. For this reason, human rights activists across the Persian Gulf region and beyond must shed light on the lives of migrant workers to end modern-day slavery as a common practice among nations in the region.

By Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu, a third-year J.D. student (class of 2017) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

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