Modern day slavery in the Gulf
April 24th, 2013
02:17 PM ET

Modern day slavery in the Gulf

By Dimitri Gkiokas, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Dimitri Gkiokas is a banker who now lives in Germany. The views expressed are his own.

“Can you believe these things happened just 150 years ago?!” exclaimed a young voice behind me. Lincoln had just finished in a Parisian cinema. I was not surprised by the audience's exuberant applause at the end credits: Well-deserved for the tired, yet persistent president, who had finally made it through the painful vote for the abolition of slavery. But that “just 150 years ago” reminded me of the modern-day slavery that continues today.

I recently left the Middle East after a decade in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Both are places of invariable desert yellow monotony and mind-blowing heat, with a fine touch of 90 percent humidity during the summer months – unbearable for most, but apparently not the tens of thousands of Indian, Nepalese and Bangladeshi construction workers melting in the heat of the Arabian Peninsula.

The prize for their back-breaking work: $5 a day for working in appalling conditions 12 hours a day 7 days-a-week; for frequently being deceived and blackmailed by rogue employment agencies back home; for signing contracts they cannot read and effectively being held hostage by an all-mighty employer in their new destination country; for being fully marginalized by the host societies; for living with hundreds of other workers, and as the BBC notes, sometimes six or seven crowded into a 3-by-3-meter room in dreadful desert camps without proper sanitation; for abandoning all hope of ever enjoying the love of family life.

Like all expats in the Gulf, I could see the daily convoys of beat-up buses in jolly colors (but no A/C), packed with exhausted workers, some looking out the window at the Bentleys, the Ferraris, the Cayennes stopped next to them at the traffic light. From the comforting distance of my bank office, $5 morning cafe-latte in hand, I often wondered how we expatriates tolerate their mistreatment.

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In the Arab Gulf, employment law is elementary and rarely enforced, while trade unions are forbidden. The UAE and Qatar have both ratified the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, but migrant workers are still treated like cattle, their salaries kept at the World Bank’s poverty-line.

Employers confiscate workers’ passports and exploit the kafala sponsorship law, leaving immigrants at the mercy of their employer with virtually no chance of escape. A complex network of commercial interests permeates the region’s social and economic fabric, with ruling family members and friends holding – as mandated by law – large shares in foreign companies’ subsidiaries and joint ventures. Western powers have been courting their protégés for decades in exchange for black-gold and construction projects’ baksheesh, with “return on investment” overriding any need to provide decent working conditions.

There has been a constant flow of published research about the exploitation of migrant workers. The ILO, Human Rights Watch and various other groups have worked to raise awareness on the abuse of workers’ basic rights, flying in the face of the Gulf’s happy-face press. Expats in the Gulf see these abuses every day. We sometimes even discussed these abuses at our pool parties. But we ultimately went about our own business, indifferent, culpable. To keep enjoying luxuries we never had back home, we seemed to have gradually given up any formative role in the societies we were living in and to have accepted a racist notion of equality: these people as “not like us.”

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Some would protest:  “They made this choice on their own. In their countries, they have no job, no prospects.” George Fitzhugh, the spokesman for Southern plantation slave-owners in the United States abided by the same humanist values: “…with slavery, both the master and the slave are always provided for; the slave always has a home and food, while the master always has his lands worked upon.” These are pathetic arguments, which we can’t take seriously if none of us would be prepared to accept a similar fate for ourselves or our children.

Yet despite all this, there is no hope for institutional change anytime soon. The closest real democracy is more than three hours away by plane and law is a thin line in the sand defined by local rulers, who have declared open season on dissidents. Most local citizens of these countries, a mere 10 to 20 percent of the entire population, instinctively resist labor reforms, captive to their society’s norms, their convenient way of life and the complicity of the expatriates.

The only visible road to change requires the involvement of the educated and influential community – local and ex-pat – to break the silence and collusion with this modern-day slave trade. It has happened before: the abolition of slavery, the labor rights movements, female emancipation – daring people succeeded in shattering archaic traditions by raising their voices.

In the Gulf today, many people have the power to make a small change individually: journalists, bloggers, university professors, ambassadors, imams, and priests can spread the word to their communities and demand government reforms. Contract and procurement managers can impose “human-friendly” terms on bidding contractors. CEOs and human resources managers can establish corporate policies based on international employment law. To embrace that in a world of victims and executioners, the idea espoused by Albert Camus that it is the “job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners,” is more essential in the Middle East today than ever before.

The Lincoln of Arabia will not step forward anytime soon (and will most probably meet with a bullet as soon as he does). In the meanwhile, the emancipation of migrant workers is in the hands of the rest of us.

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Topics: Human Rights • Middle East

soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Kerry

    Seeing who the people are who rule both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, this should surprise no one. This proves that the so-called "Arab Spring" is a dire failure!

    April 24, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Very true, Kerry. Yes, the Arab Spring has not succeeded anywhere. One reason is because of Western interference. The governments of both Bahrain and Yemen still need to be overthrown but won't be because of Western support, unfortunately!

      April 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Reply
      • James A Young

        Perhaps you would like their government overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists?

        April 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  2. rightospeak

    Thank you for this outstanding article , Dimitri . Men's cruelty to men has no bounds. While the big bankers live in astronomical luxury, millions of people are starving, no job in sight, no future. The UN is good only for war and enriching the already rich. I see revolts in the near future. Modern day slavery needs to end. At least Khadafi and Assad tried to improve the lives of their people while NATO and the US seem to support a return to BARBARISM.

    The censorship to mold the public opinion is doing great harm to this country and to our world.

    April 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, rightospeak. I too am disgusted by the right-wing news media and the news they don't report. For example, they never said anything about the reintroduction of some 3500 U.S. troops back into Iraq at the beginning of this year and they never said why Vietnam invaded Cambodia back in 1979. The reason for that was because of the killing fields there created by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese are the only ones to put a stop to it.

      April 24, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  3. sand

    its not really about integration if a European ask be something i will base my answer on reason and rationality. reason is to plan and rationality is to take the best choice based on multiple choices so if a American says to be move your car because its blocking the way i will see that this is the best choice of all the choices and i will do it in a planned way.

    April 24, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  4. Georg Gossius

    Tks for your excellent article ,dear Dimitri.The local,rich Gulf states are actually under the financial influence of the USA and the UK.And,these 2 so called civilized countries,decide the rules of employer-employee,actually bestial rules against the employee.May I suggest that,CNN and BBC follow up with Dimitri's artcile and pub,licize this article broadly all over the western world.
    Professor Dr.Georg Gossius,Cambodia/Norway

    April 25, 2013 at 4:07 am | Reply
  5. imsome1

    Thanks very much for this nice article. I'm currently working in one of the Gulf countries, I have a good job. There are Lincoln(s) of arabiya but they might be imprisoned or killed

    April 25, 2013 at 4:18 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    It's disgusting the way migrant workers are exploited in many parts of the world. Many expats from the rich industrialised world know no scruples neither, when they come to countries with appalling labour laws. They are no fat cats, but they enjoy the privileges of having people at their beck and call, knowing that back home, they wouldn't be able to afford it. Occasionally there are families in Europe who keep illegal migrants as servants, who are shamelessly exploited.

    April 25, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
  7. zekliv

    This article is full of hypocrisy. Written by a self-claimed 'banker' who lived between UAE and Qatar for ten years and after leaving he writes an article to say "I often wondered how we expatriates tolerate their mistreatment" – 10 YEARS IN THE GCC – and continues to give advice about how the "educated and influential community" must stand first to change things. Seriously...

    April 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • Teri Adams

      if he had so much as made the slightest waves he would have been deported almost immediately. In the UAE you shut your mouth, go to work, pretend not to see the masses living no better than slaves, OR you open your mouth, get deported and nothing changes.. I lived in the UAE for four months last year and one of the things that made me sick to my stomach was the way the expat unskilled worker class are treated.. I was unprepared for the realities of mass subjugation and the drawn in the sand lines of "Us" and "Them". It is truly appalling. One of the many reasons I did a runner, left my job and an excellent paycheck, and came home. Some days I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror..

      April 27, 2013 at 1:16 am | Reply
  8. Plainandsimple

    When you use the word "the Gulf" it could refer to the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico, or very many other gulfs in the world. Either you don't know or you're paid not to know the actual name of "the Gulf" you're referring to. You should at least use its actual name "Persian Gulf" once at the beginning, then the reader knows what you mean by "the Gulf" throughout your article.

    April 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • Leslie Lox

      Respectfully, that may be true but FYI, the fact is that it exists in both gulfs to which you refer and to an alarming degree. I respectfully refer you to my comment to this article as well.

      Les on and

      April 28, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      When I saw the headline, "Slavery in the Gulf," OF COURSE I knew which Gulf was meant. Every educated person did. Your complaint is like criticizing someone who says "I'm visiting America" for not saying the United States, because technically he *could* have meant South America. Well, yeah, but still, you knew what he meant.

      October 20, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  9. deniz boro

    Oh My. Mr " Dimitri Gkiokas is a banker who now lives in Germany." did not realy get deep down to the actual or working or employment conditions before writing this article. Writing on "poor working conditions" from an "ivory tower" does not bring home the bacon – or lentils in this case. And surely such a shallow article would not make a "social responsibility bonus" to the name.

    April 25, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  10. thomas

    please, correct me if I am wrong but Barcelona football club has Qatar foundation all over the front of their jersey's, why not bring this SLAVERY ISSUE to the attention of the Barca rulers,players,coaches,faithful, etc, AT EACH AND EVERY PRE-GAME AND POST-GAME MEDIA SESSION. Then see what happen's, Maybe FIFA will withdraw the world cup from Qatar.

    April 27, 2013 at 9:19 am | Reply
  11. deniz boro

    At least they make an effort to look "as if".

    April 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  12. robert eidson

    That's why corporate america holds them in high esteem!

    April 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  13. stephen mann

    When I read this article, I realized that the "West" and Islamic world have been opposed since Mohammed but that this dialectic had been forgotten about by the West. When it couldn't extend itself through the Islamic East, it went the other way and discovered the New World. Then it needed slaves to develop it. At the same time, a million Europeans were captured and enslaved by pirates from Africa's "Barbary Coast". But the West's Industrial Revolution allowed it to transcend this dialectic as it established its world empires and to colonize the Islamic world itself. Then it destroyed itself through war. But irresponsible wealth brings death upon itself. If this can happen to the West, then it can to the Islamic world with Saudi Arabia and the lesser Arabias at its center. I think a violent end to the Islamic world in its current form is inevitable, especially as its oil runs out. Then its spires will become but bird sanctuaries...

    April 28, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  14. Leslie Lox

    I’m grateful CNN is taking up the torch once more and publically to shed light on the existing slavery and human trafficking situation within ours and many communities around the globe. Many people don’t realize that modern slavery is much closer than many of us think treading at the foot of our door steps.

    My first view of a slave in the inner city saw a black man standing completely violated and voided. His clothes, haircut and features meant nothing. If he’d had a soul you could’ve seen right through to it, but he didn’t. Someone had reached really deep into and past this man’s belly to siege and take possession of his flesh/bone and essence. His nature had been taken from him. I remembered once hearing the phrase, “God doesn’t even hear your prayers.” I imagined this for him as a test to see if I could visibly discern if he was in fact compromised. The positive result was frightening, more so because he had four children and a wife ...the answer is yes.

    Understand that for this to happen there has to be a supporting environment. Understand that this is not only prevalent in our inner cities but I’m told it exists on farms; there are more blacks involved (at least that’s what I’ve seen); the money from it, even indirectly is still obscenely enormous and addictive; the money from it finances many things, some not good including terrorism. This is only the beginning of a lengthy, terrible and terrifying dilemma. It needs people to speak up.

    Les on

    April 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  15. Famed

    Iam a Engineer, residing in Qatar. Three Years after my post graduation in Qatar, working in a construction company,
    I was born and brought up very softly by my parents. When i came qatar i learned what a real life is,

    There is no respect for human, the only thing which differentiate people here is Qatari, Non Qatari & white peoples. Indians/Nepal/Bangladesh/Pakistanies are being treated as a slaves, they never care for the people.
    Labours sign contract which they are not aware of, getting up at 4`0 clock in morning standing in Que for a dirty toilet, getting in BUS without AC at 4.30. coming to site and working under the sun with Humidity 17% really a very hard task.

    Also most of the workers are prone to infections disease like stomach problems, stones hernea etc. they dont have money for the treatment and leave is not granted for them since they need to complete the contract.and who cares if a worker die, another no. will join soon.

    No labour wish to go india, since they have spend a huge money to get the job. Forcing a labour to work after working hours by giving a small hard cake,small juice bottle both of which is very dangerous to health. Since these less educated labours need food and to fill there stomach they drink soft drink daily with empty stomach. which leads to weaken there body.

    If we notice a labour in indian town/ village and a labour in gulf, both will have a conversant body while the indian staying workers are hale and healthy and the gulf workers are very weak and dull. WHO can change there life? they need money, they are HUMAN beings. WHO respects them? Unless and untill Gulf kingdom dont care about them nothing will happen to those poor peoples, Unfortunately most are victim, even though one is educated, he cannot take leave of his own, he cannot complete sleep for a normal 7 hours, Still more humiliations mental harassment continues in guf workers life. Zero personal life, Zero enjoyment.

    Yet the other part? Richer? They enjoy life to the fullest by sucking blood of workers.

    June 30, 2013 at 12:33 am | Reply
  16. mike

    I'm surprised and shocked at this report !! How did all those white Christian Americans get into the middle east and Asia and India to establish a vast slave trade, after all it was the founding fathers in America that invented slavery, at least that is what our schools and liberals would have you believe.

    October 17, 2013 at 9:49 am | Reply
  17. Fred

    When are we going to stop patronizing these countries.

    October 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  18. True Patriot

    This is. Sad. Situation. So much for so called western. Civilization. Don't forget we ve. All. Have. Been enslaved.Its no different in the good ole. USA,Here too. U. Either play. By. The rules or. Go. To jail.Mandatory. Income tax, mandatory. Property tax, mandatory sales tax, mandatory auto insurance, mandatory home insurance, taxation without representation,hmm, did. I miss anything.

    October 18, 2013 at 9:10 am | Reply

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