Poor, Vulnerable and in Search of Work

Given the choice few people would leave their families and friends and migrate from their homeland. The tens of thousands that pay unscrupulous ‘agents’ and criminal gangs to transport them hundreds or thousands of miles (often across borders), are compelled to do so to find work and to earn money to support themselves and their loved ones at home. The Middle East and North African (MENA) countries are some of the destinations of choice for both men and women seeking work. Women look for domestic work and child-care, whist employment in the construction industry, is the goal of the tens thousands of men from South East Asia living in stifling poverty.

Migrant workers have become the majority workforce throughout the Arab States; Wealthy countries with weak or non-existent domestic workers rights, destructive gender attitudes that suppress and control women and endemic racism. This poisonous cocktail, rooted in prejudice and ignorance, fuels and justifies exploitation, including forced labour, physical and sexual abuse and extreme mistreatment by employers.

The shining modernist cities across the region are being built by migrant workers, so too the 2022 World Cup Stadiums in Qatar and they are the main providers of domestic care for middle and upper class households. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimate there to be 53 million domestic workers worldwide, of which 84% are women, accounting for “7.5% of women’s wage employment”. The numbers of domestic workers in the MENA States in comparison to population totals are staggering, as the ILO state, “labour migration in this part of the world is unique in terms of its sheer scale and its exponential growth in recent years”. The highest numbers (according to the International Institute for Humanitarian Law) are in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where migrant workers comprise around 95 per cent of workforce. In Lebanon, a country with a population of around four million, there are roughly 200,000 migrant domestic workers, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In Saudi Arabia the ILO estimate that 50% of workers are migrants, whilst Kuwait has 660,000, and a population of around three million. Similar or larger ratios are found throughout the region.

Migrants to MENA countries mainly come from Asia – Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and India, and to a lesser degree from east Africa – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Somalia. Countries where huge numbers of people, (often marginalized groups), are living in extreme poverty, where illiteracy numbers are high, education poor and opportunities rare. Excluded, ignored people who are the casualties of a divisive, corrupt worldwide social/economic system, where economic benefits and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-decreasing number of people, causing social injustice and extreme hardship for millions throughout the world. With little or no options such people are at the mercy of criminal gangs who see them as an object, a commodity to be profited from, and nothing more. There are thought to be more people in slavery now than any time in history. Such are the consequences of a system that breed’s greed and separation and places all value in profit, even over life.

Deceived and trapped into debt and bonded labour from the start, prospective migrant workers are duped into leaving their homes for Beirut, Dubai, Kuwait city, Riyadh, Sana’a or some such perfumed land of comfort. Naïve and desperate young men and women are promised they will be handsomely paid. That the streets are paved with dollars, that every apartment has hot and cold running designer clothes, smart phones and flat screen TV’s and that you too will live the good life, easily repay your loan to the agent and crucially help drag your family out of grinding poverty. With hollow promises like these, migrants (the ILO make clear), are “lured into jobs that either didn’t exist or that were offered under conditions that were very different from what they were promised in the first place,” by unscrupulous recruitment agents, who are the first rung in a criminal journey, which for large numbers of migrant workers, leads directly to purgatory. The reality for many is one of modern day slavery, imprisonment and violence; mistreatment that in many cases amounts to human trafficking that leads some, in total despair, to take their own lives. In Lebanon alone, migrant domestic workers are “dying at a rate of more than one a week – often by throwing themselves of balconies” The Guardian 27/04/2013 report. On the scaffolding around the glitzy building projects for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the ‘Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee (PNCC)’ estimate 1,300 Nepalese construction workers died last year.

The Death Sites of Qatar

Abuse of migrant workers, who account for nearly 90 percent of Qatar’s population of 1.9 million, is widespread in the country. And little has changed to improve matters since being awarded the much-prized 2022 World Cup. Human Rights Watch (7/02/2013) state, that Qatar “has not delivered on its pledges to improve migrant workers’ rights”. In 2010 the country’s rulers asserted that their successful World Cup bid, “could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform”.

Every year over 100,000 men from Nepal head to Qatar to work on building projects across the realm, they “are not experienced at this type of work, which is much more risky than other jobs.” Appalling conditions and mistreatment by employees and low pay, lead “some to commit suicide.” The Guardian (26/09/2013) reported. In fact many recount how their salaries are withheld, or not paid at all, their passports confiscated to prevent them from leaving and they are “deprived of the ID cards they need to move around freely without fear of arrest”.

Bodies of dead Nepalese men are returning home at a rate of three or four a day, it is a mystery why these fit young men are dying in such large numbers, especially so, when “the most common cause of death given on forms is some form of heart failure”. A probable contributory factor is the appalling working and living conditions that the men are forced to endure, working 12 hour shifts in 50 degree C temperatures, and often without water. After work “they return to filthy and overcrowded accommodation in the Sanaya industrial centre, where the stench of raw sewage is overpowering and workers allege 600 men share two kitchens. “The kitchens are infested with mosquitoes, cockroaches and bugs,” said KBB, one of the camp’s residents”. No wonder employees, like Ganesh Bishwakarma aged 16 years old are falling like flies. He died after just two months in Qatar. Too young to legally migrate, the recruitment agent forged a passport stating Ganesh was aged 20-year and a job as a cleaner was his. The cost of this life shifting opportunity including false documents and travel – an extortionate 150,000 rupees ($1,500), to be re-paid, dead or alive, with 36% interest. The debt now falls on Ganesh’s family to somehow service, trapping them into bonded labour as their son was similarly enslaved.


All MENA states, with the exception of Yemen are signatories to the Palermo Protocol, (which clearly defines the conditions of trafficking) making its articles legally binding and employees who contravene them guilty of human trafficking offenses. In what could prove to be a significant action, a recent high profile case involving Meshael Alayban a Saudi-Arabian Princess, has highlighted the fact that treatment of many migrant domestic workers by their Arab employers, qualifies as human trafficking. The BBC 20/07/2013 reported that the “Princess is accused of forcing a Kenyan woman to work 16 hours a day while paying her far less than what she was originally promised”, and, taking away “the woman’s passport, precluding her escape”. The two-year contract guaranteed the women “$1600 a month, for eight hour work five days a week”, but as is often the case she was paid much less – “$220 a month and made to work twice as long”. The unnamed Kenyan escaped on a visit to America with the royal household, and has brought a case in California (where they were staying) against the regal Alayban for trafficking. She faces a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.

The vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to human trafficking in MENA countries, beyond the underlying prejudicial causes, are due to two primary factors: the Dickensian “Kafala” employment system, allied to the lack of labor protection and legal redress, and the initial recruitment process, with agents extending loans to prospective migrants for employment fees, forging passports and other documentation and travel costs. This creates debt bondage, trapping the unsuspecting into years of bonded labour. The Kafala (literally, ‘guaranteeing and taking care of’ in Arabic) or sponsorship system forms the legal basis, for both residency and employment for migrant domestic workers in the Gulf Cooperation Countries, as well as Lebanon and Jordon. Under the scheme the employer, to all extent and purposes, ‘owns’ the migrant worker, who cannot change employers, unless the sponsor decides to sell them on to someone – a lucrative add-on for employers and a form of trafficking that fuels resistance to the schemes abolition, vehemently called for by human rights groups and all right minded thinkers.

Upon arrival the migrant workers passport is confiscated, so too their mobile phone (if they own one), together with any money. They are then driven to their workplace – the construction site or (for domestic workers) the home of their employer, where they often disappear, as HRW make clear. “Domestic workers are typically isolated and shielded from public scrutiny…[and consequently] are at heightened risk of mistreatment, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse; food deprivation and forced confinement”. The Kafala system encourages abuse and corruption and “creates a profound power imbalance between employers and workers and imposes tight restrictions on migrant workers rights”, (HRW found). In fact migrant workers are rarely aware they have any rights and their employers behave as if they do not, their freedom of movement is completely restricted by the employer.  The Kafala system gives the employer total control, they can, and often do confine the dependent victim to the house or site for weeks or months on end, and in many cases force the worker to continue working long past the completion of their contract, commonly two years. Bir Bahadur Lama from Nepal has been trying to leave Qatar for a year The Guardian (25/09/2013) report. “When my two-year contract finished, I asked my employer to let me go home. He kept promising to issue me with an exit permit and send me home, but he never did…last year my employer sold me to another man, but when he realised I was an undocumented worker, he fired me. My only option now is to turn myself in to the police, and hope that they’ll deport me”.

Legally Vague

Labour laws for migrant domestic workers in MENA countries, where they exist at all, vary in structure but not in inadequacy or lack of enforcement. All domestic work occurs beyond the protection of national labour laws, and anti-trafficking laws designed to protect migrant workers from abuse are not enforced. Under Lebanese law for example, migrant domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house without the permission of their employers, making it possible, and in many cases likely, for employers to imprison workers, exploit them and force them to work beyond their contract, with the Kafala preventing the innocent victim from reporting the abuse without risking losing residency status. It is a legal trap not confined to Lebanon, which contributes to human trafficking by creating conditions of compelled service and forced labor.

Confinement, dependency, weak labour laws, plus migrant domestic workers inability to speak the local language or understand their rights under international law (what few exist), make them acutely vulnerable. A Filipina domestic worker who tried to escape abusive employers in Lebanon told the ILO, CNN 9/04/2013 report, “my employer broke my elbow and then tied my hands behind my back. They left me one day long in my room and put a camera there. He threatened me: ‘I’ll accuse you of stealing money and ask for my money back, and they will throw you in jail”, she said. Another Filipina domestic worker interviewed in a detention centre in Kuwait told the ILO that her employer had raped her. “I went to the doctors and filed a complaint at the police, and then returned to work the next day. He reported to the authorities that I had run away, and the police arrested me,” she said. “My employer tells me that if I drop the rape charges, he will make sure that I am not deported”. Appalling accounts of physical and sexual abuse, which are representative of many, far too many migrant domestic workers experiences.

In the MENA states, labour laws need to be introduced, and where they exist need to be enforced. The ILO speak of signs of positive change, “governments and other groups have stepped up efforts to combat forced labour and human trafficking in recent years, including through the passage of anti-trafficking legislation”, but “shortcomings persist in applying laws and prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of human trafficking”, shortcomings growing out of a prejudicial attitude of mind, that lies at the poisoned heart of the violent mistreatment metered out to migrant workers, male and female, who want simply to work hard, improve their lives and support their families at home.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India.  E: grahampeebles@icloud.com  W: www.grahampeebles.org