To build gleaming cities, slavery still survives in the Middle East
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 22:10
The Middle East has undergone a process of modernization that is virtually unprecedented in its rapidity, though nearly all development has been centered within the high-tech manufacturing state of Israel, as well as the ultra-petroleum rich states of the Arabian peninsula. Whereas Saudi Arabia and Israel spend most of their money on courting U.S. favors, with some Saudi funding of militant jihadists on the side, two states in particular have focused the majority of their funds on converting themselves into business-friendly tourist hubs: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Both states have largely succeeded in turning themselves into jewels of international commerce and tourism, but in order to achieve such marvelous splendor the two countries have resorted to a barbaric culture of modern-day slavery.
The U.A.E. is considered one of the most wealthy countries in the world with an estimated GDP per capita of $37,000 in 2010; much of the U.A.E.’s economy was buttressed by the booming housing market, yet even after the Great Recession of 2008 the U.A.E. not only successfully completed its building projects but continues to develop profitable construction operations. Officially this success is attributed to U.A.E. President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the man for whom the Burj Khalifa is named, but in reality these stunning feats of economic prowess are due to a labor force comprised of up to 90 percent migrant workers. There are an estimated 5 million migrant workers in the U.A.E. alone, and they are predominately Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese.
These migrant workers are often lured from their home countries by Arabian state-sponsored advertisements that promise a better life for immigrants, similar to the old “American Dream.” In an interview with The Independent’s Johann Hari, a 24-year old Bangladeshi worker named Sahinal Monir describes how he was promised $650 a month to work eight-hour shifts on construction projects. All Sahinal needed to do in order to take advantage of these promises involving large pay and comfortable housing was pay off the $3,600 work visa, provided by his Emirates employer, over the next six months. Upon arriving in the U.A.E., Sahinal’s passport was confiscated by his employer, and Sahinal soon discovered he would have to work 14 hour shifts in 131 degree heat for only $140 a month; the “comfortable” living quarters turned out to be a tiny concrete cell without any air conditioning that also housed 11 additional workers, and their job entailed carrying 110 pound-blocks of concrete in weather that tourists are advised to avoid for any longer than five minutes. Lacking any ability to escape without their passports or the money to purchase a new one, the migrant workers turn to suicide as a release from bondage; the Indian consulate began recording a tally of their nationals who had ended their lives, a number that reached 971 deaths in 2005 alone, but they were quickly commanded to cease counting. The Emirates Center for Human Rights traced the tyrannical powers of U.A.E. employers to the Kafala Sponsorship Program, a state institution that grants private employers nigh complete and wholly inhumane rights of ownership over their indentured employees.
Qatar has a much smaller migrant work force of approximately 1.2 million people, mostly from the same countries as the U.A.E.’s foreign laborers, but the horrific working conditions as well as inhospitable housing are virtually the same as its neighbor. Qatar, however, cares far less about censoring the human toll of its modern slavery practices; roughly 600 migrant workers die onsite every year, mostly from heart attacks, and over 1,500 individual complaints were filed in the first half of this year alone. Qatar also happens to be the host country for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which led the International Trade Union Confederation conclude that an estimated 4,000 migrant workers will die on the job before the tournament begins; it’s worth noting that the ITUC did not account for Qatar’s plans to double their migrant labor force in order to make the deadline for stadium completions. Qatar caved to migrant worker’s demands for unions in 2011, but has completely rejected proposals issued by laborer’s representatives, most notably the demand that employers return their employees’ passports.
Though the menace of slavery in its incomprehensibly horrific, traditional form has largely been eradicated from this planet, the new incarnation that has grown between the cracks of international and Middle Eastern law is in dire need of the world’s condemnation. Shame on Qatar and the UAE for reviving one of humanity’s gravest crimes, shame on FIFA for endorsing its use, and shame on us all if we sit idly by and let the worst aspect of history repeat itself.