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Slavery Now: Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia

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Slavery still exists today. And it exists in the Gulf states and in Saudi Arabia.

I am Syrian, but I was born and raised in Dubai where my parents worked. When I was in grade school we often collected donations to give to the migrant laborers in a construction camp near our school. We went to visit the camp to deliver the donations, and I witnessed with my own eyes the miserable conditions of the laborers. I could not believe my eyes—it was a dump. A twelve by ten room shared by eight men. Forty-five workers shared one toilet and a shower. The toilet and the shower were filthy.

In the eighteen years I spent living in the United Arab Emirates, I learned a lot about how people treat other people. Over nine million people live in the United Arab Emirates, ninety-two percent of them are expats and migrant workers. Most of the migrant laborers come from Pakistan, India, Philippines, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. They work long hours and earn very little money in construction, garbage collection, and other menial jobs. The gap between the rich and the poor is huge. People from those states furnish cheap labor, and they face racism and discrimination. There is a hierarchy. Arab expatriates may hold higher paying positions, but even within Arab expatriates there is another hierarchy. Expatriates from Saudi Arabia are usually treated better than expatriates from Egypt for example. They are also discriminated against. Nationality plays a major role in what position a person can hold in the United Arab Emirates. Even at McDonalds or KFC the managers were always Arabs while the other employees were Filipinos, Indians, and the other people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. You will never find a Filipino being a manager over an Arab worker. The division of labor is appalling – the same inequities that exist in the economic system of the United States have been reproduced in these countries as well.

In Wikipedia Dubai is described as a city “known for luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture and a lively nightlife scene” yet there are millions of foreign migrant laborers who struggle to buy a piece of bread for lunch. Before the 1960’s Dubai was just desert. It was the migrant laborers who transformed it into the city that millions of tourists visit today. But hidden behind these glossy images in the mass media are the migrant laborers, who are treated like slaves and who live in miserable conditions. Dubai would still be desert today without them. They do so much yet are paid very little.

Being an international student, a Syrian, who grew up in Dubai, distinguishes me from most of the other students at the University of Rochester. About twenty percent of the student body are international students – but even most of them have not been exposed to as many different cultures as I have been. People question me about my background regularly. People are curious about where I come from. They often ask me, What Dubai is like? Their image of Dubai is really only based on what the rulers of the country have put out in the mass media. Many of them assume I am rich simply because I lived in Dubai. When I hear such questions, the first thing that comes to my mind is the horrible gap between the rich and the poor –how most of the local wealthy Emiratis look down on the migrant laborers from countries like the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan. It is pathetic to see how the hardest jobs are the ones that pay the least, while the easiest jobs where someone sits in an air conditioned office with his feet up on his desk pay twenty times as much.

Unfortunately, the United Arab Emirates is not the only country that treats migrant laborers this way. All of the Persian Gulf states have large numbers of foreign workers, and in most cases they outnumber the native citizens of the country. Qatar has 1.8 million foreign workers but only 300,000 native citizens. The foreign laborers holding menial tasks live in terrible conditions, and they are “trapped into permanent debt, exposed to hazardous working conditions and denied the right to unionize.”[i] Due to the lack of financial opportunities in their native countries, the migrant workers are forced to work in the Gulf or Saudi Arabia to provide for their families. Although most of them think they will have a better standard of living, but they find a very different and miserable reality. The working conditions are inhuman; the laborers are expected to work for hours in temperatures that reach up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. It was reported that between 2010 and 2012, seven hundred Indian workers died in Qatar due to these conditions.

The same conditions exist in Saudi Arabia. But they are not limited simply to working and living conditions. Female household servants from places like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Ethiopia are sexually abused and raped by their employers.

I am an Arab who believes in human rights. I believe that every human being should be treated equally, regardless of nationality, religion or race. But are there human rights in these countries? No. The tragedy is our world is divided between a small wealthy class and a large class of impoverished people, between people born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and others who struggle to obtain their basic needs.  Although I was born and raised there, I am glad I am Syrian, and not from the despicable state of the United Arab Emirates.

Notes.

[i] https://www.thenation.com/article/kingdom-slaves-persian-gulf/

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