Slavery in the Gulf States

21 March 2014
Hamza Culin

Migrant workers are suffering in the countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG). Despite being essential to Gulf economies, they endure horrible conditions comparable to 19th century slavery.

There are 16 million foreign workers in the CCASG countries – 40 per cent of the total population and more than 60 percent of the workforce. In Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, they are a majority of the total population; in the UAE, they account for more than 80 percent. In Qatar, migrants are 95 percent of the 1.3 million-strong workforce.

The employment of large numbers of foreign workers has been a structural imperative, because the oil-related industries depend on the import of foreign technologies and knowledge and skills lacking in the local population. Foreign workers have become the dominant workforce in many sectors.

Long working hours, unsafe conditions, unpaid wages and passport confiscation are some of the crimes committed against migrant workers across the CCAG countries.

Qatar in particular has a terrible record. While the ruling elite celebrate winning the right to host the FIFA world cup in 2022, workers are forced to work at breakneck speeds to build the infrastructure. They are paying with their lives.

Human rights organisation Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee estimates that 400 Nepalese construction workers have died on building sites since works for the sporting event started. The fact that Nepalese workers are only 20 percent of Qatar's migrant workforce makes this statistic even more disturbing.

While the total number of deaths on construction sites is unknown, the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 4,000 more workers could die in Qatar even before the World Cup kicks off.

None of this concerns the governments of oil-rich CCASG countries in the slightest. In fact, practices like passport confiscation aren’t punishable. Laws also deny workers the right to form trade unions.

Under the Kafala system, all migrant workers in the CCASG countries are required to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their employment and legal status. Any violation can result in a worker being deported.

But not all foreign nationals in CCASG countries get treated this way. Rich foreign CEOs live in villas and gated communities, while migrant workers are forced to live in overcrowded labour camps. Their passports aren’t confiscated, and they always get paid on time.

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