Slaves of Babylon

Bangladeshi garbage collector. Kuwait, 2007.

According to Vittorio Longhi, Nepal sees “on average” two guest workers return in coffins to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport every day. More than 7,000 Nepalese guest workers are known to have died on the job in the Middle East between 2003 and 2013 – over 700 in 2013 alone so far, according to The Kathmandu Post – from a combination of workplace injuries, natural causes, and traffic accidents.

The most disconcerting cause of death are the sudden coronaries that kill tens of workers per year. Temperature shock is sometimes suggested as the leading cause, but poor diet, heatstroke, lack of drinking water, stress, and alcoholism are the biggest contributing factors.

Facing penury from loan sharks or arrest for illegally quitting a job, the only recourse in such a situation is for the worker to seek asylum at his home country’s diplomatic mission – a difficult task if the worker is unable to freely travel through the country for legal or monetary reasons (i.e., unpaid wages.) Though some reforms have been instituted, particularly in the UAE and Kuwait, for the most part unionization is still outlawed, and minimum wage standards have not been implemented. Even the better dormitories with good sanitation, air conditioning, recreation centers, and cafeterias are effectively isolated compounds.

Guest workers often live in villas that “vary from unfinished to decrepit,” several men to a bedroom, kitchen, or toilet, with inadequate sanitation on the outskirts of the urban centers. There are also laws that limit when and where they can take their weekend breaks, even to the point of barring them from certain public parks, beaches, and during certain times of the day – a restriction that Human Rights Watch says is primarily enforced against South Asians, and not Western or Arab expats. As Andrew Gardner and Autumn Watts – anthropologists studying transnational migration in the Gulf – these workers are Invisible Men and Women. They are the largest single demographic in some of these states, but are effectively unseen unless they gather in such numbers to inspire unease among full citizens:

“Labor migrants are, of course, visible everywhere in the city — in large work crews, in matching uniforms, on the buses that carry them between labor camps and construction sites — but those encounters from a distance are the limits of typical interaction between them and the middle and upper classes of both foreigners and citizens who make a home, however temporary, on the peninsula.”

A third of the Gulf’s total population today consists of guest workers. Primarily South and Southeast Asian in origin, they have replaced the Arab guest workers of the 1980s who departed – or in the case of 200,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, were expelled – during the 1991 Gulf War. The Gulf states increasingly opted for non-Muslim and non-Arab workers in the years that followed. Two million guest workers are present in just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, out of six million altogether. South and Southeast Asian migrants actually outnumber the native populations of several Gulf states: 70% of the UAE’s population, and 69% of Kuwait’s population, consists of guest workers nowadays. Saudi Arabia hosts tens of thousands of workers – it issued 700,000 new visas for maids alone in 2013 – and now fines or shut downs employers in the Kingdom who employ more migrant than domestic workers.

Qatar is even more heavily dependent on migrant workers than Saudi Arabia. 87% of the population consists of migrants, and 94% of the entire labor force is from overseas – which means that only 6% of the workforce, as native Qataris, can legally form a union or leave a job without their employer’s permission. Qatar is planning a major expansion of its guest worker population in order to build twelve stadiums, along with subway lines, hotels, and causeways, to support the planned city of Lusail that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Most Gulf state citizens shun these jobs. Going into the construction or service industries in one’s twenties is a social stigma. Given the cost of bringing these jobs up to standard with white collar work or the public sector (where most Gulf workers are employed,) the oil monarchies prefer to import a foreign labor force that can easily isolated from the domestic political environment.

Job advert. Kuwait, 2011.
Job advert. Kuwait, 2011.

Approximately 23% of Nepal’s national income comes in the form of remittances. The prime directive for the county’s foreign service officers in the Middle East seems to be opening embassies to facilitate the movement of migrant workers, and belatedly address the bottlenecks and abuses caused by a lack of staff to monitor the guest worker populations in these countries. But there is also growing economic concern for the home and host countries. Though women can do well by their families with remittances, most of the workers in the Gulf are unskilled labor, and “spend nearly one-fourth of remittance earning to get foreign jobs,” reports The Himalayan Times.

Though most of these workers are men, female guest workers are present in the Gulf in their tens of thousands as well. Nepalese laws bar women under 25 from applying to be guest workers, but thousands of poorer women (usually younger daughters in large families) go abroad via India and Bangladesh to try and earn money – so much so that there are hundreds of open missing persons cases for Nepalese women who’ve gone to the Gulf to work as maids but may have instead ended up as sex workers.

Dutch legal expert Annette Vlieger posed to be as expat in Saudi Arabia looking for a Nepalese maid. Brokers told her that if she wanted to hire one, she could just lock the maid in her house for two years (the length of the average migrant worker contract.) This sort of abuse has, in fact, actually happened. The reputation of the Kingdom for treatment of the domestic help is so bad that Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka have all temporarily banned women from going there to work as maids, following the execution of several of their citizens in the past few years for crimes allegedly committed against their Saudi employers.

Because of spotty enforcement in both Nepal and Qatar, at least a quarter of all guest workers do not arrive via official programs, instead relying on word-of-mouth and private brokers who can charge extremely high fees and interest rates. “Of the 73 workers interviewed for this report, 69 said they paid recruitment fees ranging between US$726 and $3,651 in order to obtain their jobs in Qatar, borrowing from private moneylenders at interest rates that ranged from three to five percent interest per month to 100 percent interest on their debt per year,” notes HRW: average monthly wages in Qatar for Nepalese construction workers is US$200-300.

Guest workers going home. Bahrain-Kathmandu, 2007.
Guest workers going home. Bahrain-Kathmandu flight, 2007.

This sponsorship system, called kafala, is criticized by human rights groups because it places limitations on the movement of workers from job to job, does not regulate recruitment fees, and locks the worker into a job (and therefore, the country) that they cannot leave without the permission of their employer. Only Qatar and Saudi Arabia still require employer consent for migrants’ exit visas: the other countries have done away with this practice. As The Hindustan Times notes, the biggest problem with the kafala system is that:

“Thousands of migrant workers in the Gulf are employed on so-called ‘free visas’ – an informal arrangement where the ‘sponsor’ allows migrants to work for other people as long as the worker keeps his side of the bargain. Typically, this means paying the sponsor steep monthly or annual installments, or extra charges for bureaucratic procedures like renewing their work and residency permits. For a migrant worker, the trouble comes when something goes wrong. Perhaps his sponsor has a change of heart about the terms of the deal and wants to charge more. Or perhaps he does several weeks of hard work and is not paid. He can’t challenge his employers in the courts, because they are not his sponsors and he should not be working for them.”

Following a recent report in The Guardian, which estimates that at the present casualty rate among guest workers, over 4,000 will perish on the job between now and 2022, Nepal’s ambassador to Qatar was recalled – but not because she was interviewed for this report. The official told BBC Nepal that the country was an “open jail” for workers six months ago. Her (former) Excellency, though, had also been criticized as aloof from the plight of migrant workers for closing the embassy hostel for “distressed nationals” and for trying to have a Nepalese deported from Qatar who criticized her in a report for the agency.

This highlights an interesting component of the relationship among foreign nationals in the Gulf with their countrymen back home. The former Ambassador, a member of Nepal’s Maoist party, railed against the mistreatment of workers, yet at the same time her main duty was to expedite the hiring of such workers in Qatar. This is a very colonial construct, one that Downing Street, as the former suzerain of the region, would recognize from its days of Indian Ocean empire.

According to anthropologist Andrew Gardener, “labor brokers in the sending countries often have poor information about the contracts they arrange, and profit incentives often become aligned with the purveying of disinformation.” And the actual managers who are on the ground dealing with the chauffeurs, builders, and nannies tend to be fellow migrants. It is often necessary for the overseers to be of the same ethnic groups as the rank and file. This is because of language barriers – few bosses know their hires’ languages, and ever fewer guest workers know Arabic coming in to the country – and also because this managerial work is just not a desirable occupation among the locals. So, it too is outsourced.

Volunteerism by “white collar” migrant workers (a much smaller percentage of total foreign workers) and legal efforts by some governments (particularly India’s) goes a way in remediating potential abuses – such as providing support for the “rare strike” that does occur in the Gulf. However, the labor system is largely left to manage itself by the corporations and investors behind the massive construction projects – with grim consequences for some, trapped in debt to brokers in-country, and contracts they cannot pull out of, even in death, since debts return to the families alongside the bodies.

According to The Australian, “Officials in Zurich maintain, however, that neither the latest revelations nor any of the previous controversies will affect Qatar’s hopes of hosting the tournament.”


Photographs  courtesy of  Samira  and  rpb1001. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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