This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 Special Edition.
An Offer She Could Not Refuse
After casting a quick glance over the fifteen or so garbage bags in front of him, the armed guard barks orders in Arabic to open the giant green gates of the embassy-owned compound. We are immediately met with a dark and musty lobby that completely juxtaposes the usual bright and sunny mornings of Kuwait. Lugging the bags behind us, we follow the guard down hallway after hallway until finally coming to an abrupt halt in front of wooden double doors. They creek open just enough for our bodies and bags to fit through before slamming shut behind us. On the other side awaits a scene far too familiar in the world of indentured servitude. We are greeted with a large room of what seems like hundreds of women lying on the ground tightly packed against each other, the floor essentially invisible.
As we enter, all eyes in the room seem to fall onto the bags expectantly – apparently they knew we were coming. Ignoring the humidity and pungent smells of sweat and shit that indicated an obvious lack of ventilation, we open up the bags and begin explaining how the clothes they held would be distributed.
Having escaped from abusive employers, these women hadn’t had a proper change of clothes in days, and for some, maybe even weeks. Awaiting her turn near the back of the room in a tattered blue sari, knees curled into her chest and head shaven, sits Shefali Hafiz. A mother in her mid-20s, Shefali came to Kuwait for the same reasons as so many others. With a family to feed in Bangladesh and such scarce job opportunities, she jumped at the idea of making what seemed like three times as much money in Kuwait as she would anywhere locally. Rumors of migrant laborers striking gold after moving to the Middle East convinced her to empty her savings and pay recruiters to set up her passport and visa. All she had to do herself was sign a job contract that promised her the wage she wanted. It all seemed too easy at the time – in Shefali’s words, a blessing. However, in signing this job contract, she unknowingly signed her life away.
By putting pen to paper, Shefali joined the other 25 million migrant laborers currently residing in the Middle East. To put this into perspective, that is about 70% of the labor force in the Middle East as a whole. It’s safe to say that Shefali wasn’t exactly trailblazing when it came to making this trek across the Indian Ocean to help feed her family, but merely following a well-paved path laid out by the struggling migrants before her. However, in doing so, she made herself vulnerable to the dangers faced by those that go down this road as well.
Upon arrival, the family she was signed to work for confiscated her passport, effectively trapping her in Kuwait. As the months went on, she was psychologically and physically abused, doing work that she was never told she would be doing. All the while, she didn’t see a single dinar. Once she began seriously fearing for her life, Shefali took the advice of fellow workers and fled to the Bangladeshi embassy to seek refuge. At the time in which we spoke to her, the embassy was working with the family to get her passport back, but would make no attempts to retrieve the money she was promised. It was a compromise made all too commonly, as workers simply began to fear for their freedom to return home.
If we take a step back, we see this story echoed across the room. Each and every woman lying on the floor had endured a variation of this experience, with the hardships they have collectively faced creating a list too long to write out. If we take an even greater step back, and see the roughly 600,000 forced labor victims currently in the Middle East, we witness one of the largest incidences of human trafficking in modern history.
While this issue is heavily nuanced and complex, many of the reasons why stories like Shefali’s are so prevalent can roughly be drawn to a common source: the kafala system. However, to explain the kafala system, it is important to first understand the role of migrant laborers in the Middle East.
The Curious Case of the Middle Eastern Labor Market
After the discovery of oil, the entire landscape of the Middle East completely changed – both physically and financially. Experiencing exponential economic growth, Gulf countries were catapulted into the position of being both capital rich and infrastructure poor. Accordingly, many of these nations opted to rapidly develop their infrastructure in order to capitalize on this newfound prosperity, and were only missing the manpower to do so. This is where migrant laborers came in, and densely populated countries with high unemployment rates such as Bangladesh were the perfect source. Looking at labor statistics in the Middle East today, it is clear how heavily reliant infrastructure development has been on short term labor migration. As previously stated, the Middle East is home to 25 million migrant laborers, about 70% of the Middle Eastern labor force as a whole, with countries like Qatar having about 94% of their labor force made up of migrant laborers.
Out of the 25 million, Bangladeshi laborers make up a sizeable chunk, with there being about 4 million working in the Middle East currently. This vast quantity of workers, coupled with the desperation that results from them being lower class migrants from the third world, are the reasons why numerous economists and the ILO have labeled the Middle Eastern labor market a “buyer’s market”. A buyer’s market is an economic situation in which consumers of a good/product have complete control over market price because supply far exceeds demand. In this case, with the product being labor and the consumers being employers, poor working conditions, labor mistreatment, and cheap wages become an acceptable price for work, as there is such a strong imbalance of power between worker and employer. This imbalance is severely exacerbated by the kafala system.
A System Supportive of Human Trafficking
Meaning “sponsorship” in Arabic, the kafala system is an immigration program operating within Gulf countries that gives employers, or visa sponsors, complete control over a worker’s immigrant status. Having initially paid for the workers ability to travel, employers become legally entitled to control when their employees’ can “change jobs, receive healthcare, and even enter or exit the country”. With this system predicated on transferring control to the employer, it is easy to see how migrant laborers become susceptible to all sorts of mistreatment, as the kafala creates a dehumanizing illusion of ownership over workers.
This toxic mindset of the employer bleeds into all aspects of a migrant worker’s life, with Shefali’s hair being a prime example. Not shaven by choice, she tells us that her hair was forcibly removed by her employer after refusing to work. As horrible as this sounds, there are many stories that give the impression that Shefali got off easy. Shariful Hasan, a journalist for the Daily Prothom Allo, a newspaper based in Dhaka, spends his time trying to give assistance to these workers stranded in the Middle East. He recounts phone calls from Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East begging for help, with all of them describing some sort of physical or mental torture. A fifteen year old girl tells him she was “sexually abused by her employer and brother-in-law repeatedly” for months on end, afraid to go to the police in fear of being charged with committing adultery, as this is a crime in many Middle Eastern states. Eventually returning to her home country, physically and mentally broken, she attempted suicide in the hospital twice. There is another case of a woman that jumped off of a two-story building to “escape beatings from her employer,” only to be permanently paralyzed from the waist down. She too managed to leave the Middle East, but with no compensation.
While these stories seem gruesome, Shariful most heavily laments those that can only manage to leave the Middle East in body bags. In Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, he regularly “stands and counts 8-10 everday,” with more than 3,000 Bangladeshis returning dead every year. “How can a young man of 25 die of a heart attack?” he asks. Heart attacks and strokes caused by mental stress are behind 94% of migrant deaths. Such an outcome can only result from being forced to work more than 20 hours a day in Middle Eastern heat with little to no rest or sustenance – a picture that illustrates how inhumanely Bangladeshi laborers are viewed in these societies.
Trading Humanity for Remittance
At this point, we must ask ourselves why Bangladeshi embassies in these countries, and the national government in general, aren’t doing more to try and reform the kafala system that is destroying their people. The answer lies in the remittances of these migrant laborers – a fancy name for the money that they send back to their families after working in the Middle East. Bangladesh received over $15 billion in remittances over 2018. With this being a 15% increase from 2017, this number only seems to be growing . It generates approximately 7% of Bangladesh’s national GDP, with only the country’s enormous agriculture and textile industries holding bigger shares. These are the reasons that Dr. Abrar Chowdhury, director of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka, believes that Bangladeshi embassies are so slow to help. He explains that Bangladesh is hesitant to “speak too much about rights and good treatment of migrant workers” because they are fearful of losing the labour market that provides such a profitable stream of revenue. And as long as remittance continues bringing in this revenue, the Bangladeshi government will continue turning a blind eye to the system torturing their people.
This stance showcases how Bangladeshi migrant workers are seen more as remittance machines than humans by their own government, and should not be tolerated based on this regard alone. However, apart from ethics, the labor statistics previously reviewed showcase how the Middle East is just as reliant on Bangladesh’s workers as Bangladesh’s economy is on Middle Eastern money. With this in mind, it can be seen how the labor market does not necessarily have to continue being a buyer’s market filled with oppression. If only the system were to change – a monumental task, but one that can be achieved if done correctly.
A Sense of Hope
Reforms of the kafala system have been attempted in certain countries, with Bahrain being the first to amend a critical part of the kafala so that workers could “change employers without seeking the consent of their current employer”. In addition, the Qatari government has very recently announced that they will abolish the kafala system by this coming January (2020), allowing workers to enter/exit the country without the consent of their employers required. While these laws are certainly massive steps towards progress, and grant migrant laborers much more personal autonomy and respect, there is no use of having them if a lack of regulation still remains. This is exemplified by Jordan’s efforts to reform their labor laws in 2008. Even with reform, Human Rights Watch has reported that “the number of complaints of inhumane labor conditions” have remained the same due to “enforcement of these legal protections for migrant workers remaining lax”.
As a result, in addition to reforming the kafala system, it is equally important to extend legal coverage towards these migrant laborers. The ILO suggests doing so by establishing a legally-enforced standardized system of licensing or certification for “Private Employment Agencies (PEAs),” which are the recruiters that actually bring Bangladeshis to the Middle East and match them with families. The lack of such government oversight, coupled with competition between different PEAs, has promoted an illegal black market of recruitment, where negligence of worker rights and rampant abuse have become profitable. Legislation and an upheld rule of law that prosecutes these middle men would finally hold them accountable for their unethical practices, and further protect migrant laborers.
This issue reveals the painful truth that humanity has yet to progress from slavery, and it is astonishing that we as a globalized society have allowed for such an enormous human rights violation to continue so largely unnoticed. The road to a solution remains long, and can certainly be seen as an uphill battle. However, the root of this problem has very clear legal resolutions dependent upon its movement for change having enough support. And while it is easy to get lost, and even disheartened, by the numbers that reflect this atrocity, we must never lose sight of the issue at hand. Behind each of these numbers is a story of someone just trying to get home.
When it was finally her turn, Shefali sorted through the bag of clothes designated for her group, nodded her head in thanks, and retook her place in the back of the room. It was a moment of short-lived reassurance, but enough to bring about a sense of hope for the future.