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A New Face to Slavery: The Oil States’ Cheap Labor

oil_statesIf you go abroad to work but get your passport taken from you upon arrival, receive minimal pay and essentially have no rights, is it still a job? Or is it beginning to resemble something more sinister?

Some states in the Middle East, such as Qatar, UAE and Saudia Arabia, have recently received exposure for their terrible treatment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers coming from a variety of places in Asia and Africa. The exploitation of the workers is a return to conditions that have supposedly been outlawed internationally; conditions seem to fall on the spectrum of labor closer to the end labeled “slavery.”

Often times, these exploited workers actually pay thousands of dollars to “recruitment agencies” that then send them to states like Qatar with a job lined up. Upon arrival, their passports are taken from them, essentially prohibiting them from escaping what they will be exposed to next. The Kafala system ensures that these workers stay for at least two years and blocks overseas competition from encroaching upon this market.

Once these workers arrive, they are placed in labor camps, where sanitation is not part of their reality and overcrowding is the norm. This is the new face of slavery. It may be slightly less blatant, but it is essentially the same.

These poor migrant workers who come seeking good occupations are met with brutal conditions and hostility. The International Labor Organization estimates that 600,000 people have been subjected to these “forced labor” practices in the Middle East.

Around the world, the UAE and other nations that use cheap labor are becoming increasingly well known for their incredibly fast building times and the proliferation of skylines gleaming with luxurious towers, all built by these modern-day slaves. Grabbing headlines, Qatar has been in the spotlight for using migrant workers to build the massive amount of infrastructure needed to handle the mega-event of the World Cup. In addition to the horrid conditions they impose on these laborers, it is estimated that the death toll in the construction of World Cup infrastructure leading up to the event has exceeded 1,200 – a figure that outstrips all previous World Cup events. The massive loss of life in preparing for the event can be taken as a sign of the value that Qatar places on its migrant workers: they are expendable.

This system of forced labor is systematic in the Middle Eastern countries that take advantage of it. The backlash has not been as strong as it should be. It is quite possible that there has been a lack of serious backlash and serious reform due to the geopolitical positions of these oil states. Oil is a vital resource in the 21st century, and human rights are apparently not quite as high on the list of priorities.

The gross lack of appreciation of human lives and human rights in the states that make use of these modern-day slaves is enormous. The exploitation of workers who simply want to provide for their families is deplorable at best. As of 2014, some suspect that as many as 4,000 migrant workers may lose their lives in order to prepare Qatar for the World Cup.

– Martin Yim

Sources: The Economist, CNN, BBC 1, BBC 2
Photo: The Economist