Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Bigger than the World Cup: state-sponsored human trafficking in the Gulf states

Recent attention to the plight of migrant workers in Qatar is welcome, but the problems of trafficking and forced labour in the Middle East are endemic.

Laya Behbahani
24 April 2015

Migrant construction workers in Dubai lay rebar in 2009. Static146/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The 2022 World Cup has brought the abuses of migrant workers in the Gulf states into the global spotlight. Hiding behind the glittery skyline they have constructed over the past thirty years, migrant workers comprise nearly two-thirds of the GCC’s labour force, totalling nearly 22 million migrant workers across the six GCC states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At least 600,000 of these are currently subjected to forced labour. This is a reality that, from my first hand research into these issues, I know most consumers in this hub of luxury never see.

The slave-like treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is not limited to the World Cup, nor is it a new phenomenon. State-sponsored trafficking and forced labour has been part of GCC state development strategies ever since many of them ceased to be part of the British protectorate in 1971. The history of slavery and forced labour in the Gulf of course goes back much longer than this—as it does elsewhere—however my research shows the space for its modern incarnation is created through the interplay of modern immigration and labour laws . Central here is the kafala system (translated as the sponsorship system), introduced in the early 1930s. The term is intended to capture the Arabian notion of hospitality, however this system effectively allows GCC nationals and companies to traffic workers into the GCC for the purposes of labour exploitation.

Media accounts—such as recent stories about the World Cup—often describe ‘labour violations’ taking place in the region, however such characterisations bely the scale of the problem and the state sanction of the exploitation. As I have argued in my research, migrant workers in the GCC should be considered victims of human trafficking because they meet three key elements of the definition of trafficking in the Palermo protocol, which all GCC states are either signatories to or have ratified. They are (1) recruited by (2) means of fraud and deception and abuse of power by someone in control for the (3) purposes of exploitation. The legal curtailing of migrant workers’ protections and rights means that exploitation frequently includes forced labour, slavery or practices similar to slavery. Because the dynamics surrounding migrant workers meet the threshold of trafficking in international law, their denial of basic labour rights can be understood as constituting a state-sanctioned manifestation of human trafficking. The GCC countries have thus legally enshrined a form of human trafficking that is unique to this region, but which also has important parallels to capitalism’s ‘unfree global workforce’ in other parts of the world.

The exploitation of migrant workers in the GCC is systemic. It occurs in broad daylight, is sanctioned through a range of state policies, and is categorically not a result of individual, ‘bad apple’ employers. Once in the GCC states, migrant workers (typically from East Asia, the Global South and sub-Saharan Africa) are no longer covered under labour protection laws, and their fundamental rights and freedoms are denied.

To begin with, migrants are required to sign a labour contract agreeing to these conditions only in Arabic, a problem for those with no knowledge of the language. Other examples of problematic policies entail: the requirement of surrendering passports to employers for the duration of stay; the absence of a required minimum wage; the absence of maximum allowable percentages employers can charge for the migration process (resulting in debt bondage); the criminalisation of collective bargaining and the freedom to associate; the denial of rights to vacation time; and the absence of the right to transfer employment to a third party. In limiting workers’ freedom in these ways, GCC states introduce and legitimate widespread labour exploitation and forced labour within their borders.

These legislated restrictions often lead to gross human rights violations. As my research and as well as large-scale investigations by the International Labour Organisation and other organisations have documented, these violations include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, debt bondage, the withholding of wages, the denial of vacation time, detainment for escaping abusive situations and at times deportation.

The existing dynamics of the GCC economy drive the continued use of forced labour and exploitation in the region. GCC countries have significant interests in regional and international trade in oil and natural gas, resulting in a collective gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately US$1.60 trillion and a GDP per capita of USD$33,300. Far from sitting on their money, the GCC states have used it to build and develop a luxury paradise for the wealthy and global elite. At the same time, very few GCC nationals participate in the labour force. The high GDP, lack of nationals in the workforce and a desire for development and expansion has created a heavy reliance on a migrant labour force. Indeed, the estimates for some GCC states put the proportion of migrant workers as high as 90% of the private sector. Migrant workers labour across every sector of the economy, from bars and clubs to the food sector, domestic care, agriculture, construction (with nearly US$418 billion worth of projects in the UAE alone), sex work, hospitality and tourism.

As a result of mounting pressure by the international community, the GCC has made some recent incremental improvements. These include the acknowledgement of a rampant problem in labour practices vis-à-vis the kafala system, as well as gradual reforms. Although these reforms are a promising start, there is a need for much wider policy change as well as enforcement of policy changes before an improved future can be imagined.

What can be done to reform labour rights in one of the wealthiest economic blocs in the world? If the problem is bigger than the World Cup, so too must be the solutions. So long as the GCC states refuse to adhere to the international laws they have ratified, including the Palermo Protocol, meaningful reforms to the region, are unlikely. The abolishment of the kafala system would be a good start, however, as would a re-evaluation of the current hybrid legal system that perpetuates these problems. Such a re-evaluation would first call for the clarification of Islamic law, which prohibits the enslavement of free persons and emphasises the universality of the presumption of freedom, as a basic fundamental right given to all persons. Secondly, a re-evaluation would need to ask how rights could be afforded to migrant workers, while at the same time, preserving the economic integrity of the GCC from a trading vantage point. These reforms are not only in the best interest of migrant workers, but are in fact essential to the sustainability of trading interests and economic prosperity in the Gulf region.

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