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July 26, 2016 6:34 am

Slave Labor Continues to Thrive in the Arab World

avatar by Josephine Bacon

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In Western Europe, the trafficking of human individuals as sex and labor slaves is now considered to be more financially lucrative for criminals than drug-smuggling. Yet, despite numerous anti-trafficking legislative efforts in Europe, the servants of super-rich foreign visitors from the Middle East continue to be treated as slaves.

Like their employers, these servants are shepherded straight from an incoming airplane to a car on the tarmac, without having to pass through immigration or customs. What’s worse, few cases come to court when these servants escape the clutches of their slave-owners (and most of the incidents are covered up for political reasons). Just one of many examples was published in the Daily Mail, where a servant was forced to work 18 hours a day and sleep on the floor, at first for $15.00 a month in “wages” — that is until her employer, a female doctor from Asia, decided not to pay her at all.

This is an example of the kafala system, which is the law in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq,  Jordan, Kuwait, and Oman. The Arabic name, which translates as “sponsorship system,” places the huge foreign workforce — which provides virtually all of the labor in this wealthy part of the world — under the total control of their employers. In Qatar, for instance, foreign workers represent 80% of the population, and most are treated like slaves.

Under kafala, all foreigners must have a “sponsor” who arranges their visa. Each foreign worker’s passport is then confiscated by the employer or agency, and held for the duration of the “employment.” There is no legal redress or appeal.

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This exploitation of foreign labor has been criticized by all the human rights organizations, but to no effect.

In November, 2013, Amnesty International published a report about the construction workers in Qatar who were building the infrastructure for the World Cup. The death toll among these workers was said to amount to one worker a day —  yet no one cared or did anything

And while it it is often assumed that the kafala system only applies to lower paid jobs, this is not the case; in reality, it applies to all expatriates — even those in top jobs who, unlike the blue-collar workers, are highly paid. For instance, on November 14, 2013, the British daily The Guardian published the story of Zahir Belounis, a French footballer held captive in Qatar. He had been hired by a local football club to help it get to a higher division. When this was achieved, the club stopped paying Belounis’ wages, but continued to withhold his passport. He was trapped in his apartment with no income, and a family to feed. Belounis appealed to the French President and leading personalities throughout the world. Finally, after 19 months of pleading for his release, he was allowed to leave.

Belounis is just one of many examples.

Pressure has caused Bahrain to pass a law abolishing the kafala system, but it continues in practice. Changes to the law in Qatar are due to be implemented on December 14, 2016. Even then, it will only apply to foreigners who take up employment after the new law is passed — and anyway, it’s unlikely to be implemented.

Slave labor continues — and will continue — to thrive in the Middle East.

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