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.
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.”
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.