Immigrant Slavery in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries: An Interview with Jay Johnson
Immigrant Slavery in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries: An Interview with Jay Johnson.
Recently I saw a video on youtube that a Saudi man shot while beating and abusing a Bangladeshi taxi driver. The fact that he posted this video on the Internet to brag about how he abused the poor man reveals that these people have no understanding of human rights, and in fact take a perverse sense of enjoyment to show off their sadism and barbarity, Here is that video.
Millions of foreign workers go to Saudi Arabia and other oil rich Arab countries to find work, only to be treated as slaves, beaten, abused with no possibility to escape their predicament. Many commit suicide.
Jay Johnson is a world traveler and human rights activist so deeply disturbed by the exploitation of immigrant workers he witnessed while visiting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Member States of the Middle East that he has set up a website to expose what is happening there.
He believes the only way to end this abuse is to bring to raise the world awareness of it. He has created a blog documenting these human rights abuses with pictures and videos. Please visit the blog. www.gcchumanrights.org/
Faithfreedom had the pleasure to interview Jay. This interview will be published in three parts. Part two and three will be published tomorrow and day after tomorrow. This information needs to be spread and this abuse must end.
It took some courage to do this because the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity that Mr. Johnson will be describing clearly have a stake in avoiding world scrutiny.
Dear jay, can you please tell about yourself and how did you become interested in defending the abused migrants in these countries?
FAITHFREEDOM: Thank you for accepting to do this interview for Faithfreedom International.
Please tell us something of your background, how your travels brought you to the GCC States, the name of your website, and what you hope to accomplish with it.
JAY JOHNSON: Thank for the opportunity to be with Faithfreedom. It is indeed an honor for me. I am a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky. As a computer consultant in the Healthcare industry, I have had the opportunity to visit Europe, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In the course of business, I have also met people from Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
While visiting South Asia, I found the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans to be quite hospitable. These people have struggled for many years – Pakistan versus India, internal political conflicts in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – but they are generally very kind, compassionate, and honest with outside visitors.
Some of my trips to South Asia also included visits to one or more GCC States of the Arabian Peninsula – most often Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. I was shocked by how inhumanely South Asian and other immigrant workers are treated in those countries.
With all the wealth those GCC nations amass from oil and natural gas sales to Western Europe and the United States, there really is no excuse for what has been happening to the millions of immigrants they employ as housemaids and to work in the oil fields, build highways, and modernize their cities with some of the most beautiful and impressive buildings in the world.
Modern communication – particularly the internet – truly has made us aware we are one world. Nations no longer can cover up evil deeds the way they once did. The purpose of my website – www.GCCHumanRights.org – is to show the world the intolerable plight of those immigrant workers so that citizens will push their governments to pressure the Gulf Cooperation Council Member States to correct that situation.
I never planned to be politically active, but I can’t ignore what I’ve seen. Since I had the means, I put up the website. If it prompts good people to act, it can make a difference.
FFI: You said “millions of immigrants.” Are there really that many?
Johnson: Yes – officially eleven million by 2008 census figures – as many as the combined number of Palestinian refugees both in the Middle East and scattered all over the world. Given the rapid and accelerating pace of construction in GCC countries, the number of immigrant workers there today is likely much higher. And three million of these GCC immigrant workers are women working as housemaids, especially in Kuwait.
Because most Arab natives in GCC countries disdain all forms of manual labor, they import foreign workers for the vital tasks of construction to modernize and maintain their infrastructure as well as to perform household duties. Doing so is absolutely essential to both their national economies and their personal day-to-day lives, since the native men won’t pick up a hand tool and most of their wives never learn to cook or clean house. As a result, immigrants comprise two-thirds of the total labor force of the six GCC nations – from 51% in Saudi Arabia to 83% in Kuwait and 85% in the UAE to 94% in Qatar (as of 2008). You can read an article about this on my website, as well as find a link to the source of the data.
Most of these immigrants are Muslims from Islamic or significantly Islamic countries. Even the majority of immigrants from India (the GCC’s principal foreign labor source) are Muslims, since there are more Muslims in India than in any other country. There are also Hindu and Christian immigrants from India; and Muslim and Christian immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines in Asia as well as from Egypt, Kenya, and Ethiopia in Africa; Muslims from Pakistan and Palestine; and various groups from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. All these immigrant workers in GCC Member States are treated in an atrocious manner no one should have to endure.
The great wealth of the GCC Member states is known worldwide. Foreign workers go there in hope of finding jobs unavailable at home in order to better support themselves and their families. Many of them are poorly educated – even illiterate – which is why they can’t find jobs where they live, and the Arabian Peninsula is not very far from home. Especially for women willing to work as housemaids, education or even literacy has not been a requirement in GCC nations, though lack of it increases the likelihood of being mistreated or even seriously abused, since they have little awareness of their rights – few as they are for women in general in those countries.
Also, the GCC States actively recruit foreign workers all across South and East Asia, often making promises of wages and benefits that hardly ever actually materialize.
Thus, despite the tales of discontent they may hear from workers who return, there remains a steady supply of hopeful fresh ones willing to take the risk.
Periodically, when murders and other atrocities reach levels that can’t be ignored, a country – such as Indonesia right now – might temporarily ban women from going to GCC nations to work as housemaids. Saudi Arabia’s answer to that pressure tactic is to begin recruiting in Vietnam and Cambodia where no one has heard what conditions the maids will find upon arrival. Evidently, cleaning up the problem has lower priority.
Going to a GCC country to work is not like coming to the United States. In America, no matter where you come from – even a country that once was our enemy – and even if you bring nothing but the clothes you are wearing, if you enter legally you can – with dedication and hard work – find a job or start a business and improve your status until it matches or exceeds the dream you had upon arrival.
Asian, Palestinian, and Black African workers in the Arab states of the GCC, however, cannot escape inferior status and oppression in residency, working conditions, health care, and access to the legal system for redress of wrongs they endure. As effective slaves to employers who consider them unworthy of respect as human beings, they are treated as totally interchangeable and disposable. However you characterize it, it’s clearly the worst kind of discrimination.
FFI: Do you have some concrete examples?
Johnson: Yes, I certainly do, and there are many more on my website – including pictures. These cases come from news articles in media all over the region, and the list keeps growing every day.
Since even native women in the Middle East generally have lower status than men, and foreign women even less, female immigrant workers – most of whom are housemaids – suffer the worst treatment. What few rights they may actually have are routinely trampled. But the male immigrants suffer too, and one glaring indicator is that the suicide rate in both groups is sickeningly high – though poorly reported locally and entirely ignored by news media outside the region.
The problem begins with the kafala foreign labor recruitment system, which makes such migrant workers temporary “guests” of their sponsor, who may or may not be their employer. The prospective worker must pay a recruitment fee to this sponsor, and that fee is usually so high that it could take years to repay it. Accordingly, either the employer or the recruiting sponsor routinely confiscates the passport of the worker – thereby trapping her or him in whatever situation awaits, since both travel within the country and departure from the country are forbidden without those papers.
If a worker loses his or her job for any reason, that person may have no way to finish paying the recruitment fee in order to regain the passport, and no money to book travel home even with it. Since travel within the country to find another job is forbidden without either that same passport or other employer-issued identity card, there is nowhere to go. Also, without money there is no way to pay rent, nor even buy food. Most of the suicides among both male and female immigrants come from the despair such trapped workers feel. Even when these cases are mentioned in the media of the region, little to no sympathy is shown; and no public clamor to redress the cause arises.
Recently, Bahrain and (separately) Kuwait have begun the process of abolishing the kafala system – not because it is evil, but because it is “inefficient”; yet that is little consolation either to the families of those who died because of it or to foreign workers still trapped without passports in the other four GCC countries.
Now let’s get to specific examples. See my website for more details on these and others appearing there daily as the regional news media report them.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the GCC nations are aggressively modernizing their cities and highways. This process is particularly evident in Dubai in the UAE, where land is rapidly being reclaimed from the desert for urban expansion and whole strings of offshore islands are being created for posh resort and residential use.
Most spectacular of all, Dubai’s 1.5 billion dollar Burj Khalifa, completed in 2009, is now not only the tallest man-made land structure on Earth but also one of the most luxurious. Designed by an American architectural firm as a showpiece of premium office and hotel space, it also contains fine dining facilities, the highest observation deck in the world, and residential suites only the richest of the rich could afford.
It took 7,500 mostly South Asian immigrant workers to erect that monument to excess wealth under the harshest of working conditions – severe heat by day, insufficient light at night, lack of proper tools and safety gear, 80 to 100 or more working hours a week, constant harassment from their native bosses, crowded and unsanitary living quarters, minimal to no health care, and inexcusably delayed or even totally unpaid wages. That on top of being away from the families they are trying to support – often for months or years at a time. So Dubai’s magnificent tourist attraction is also a blatant symbol of modern slavery.
Though the regional news media say as little as possible about it, falls and other work-related injuries plus untreated diseases arising from living jammed together in filthy work camps claim the lives of far too many of these hard-working men. And, even though most of them are fellow Muslims, if they die in a GCC country they are not allowed burial there. They must be shipped home; and, if there is no money for that, they either lie forgotten in a morgue somewhere or are left to rot in the desert.
In Bahrain, an old house that was supposed to be bachelor apartments burned down. Fire crews were slow to arrive; and, by the time they did, ten immigrant men crammed into one of the flats had died of smoke inhalation. The house had never been legally registered as a labor camp. Faulty wiring was blamed for the fire. The men died because only the newest buildings these same workers construct have smoke detectors.
You wouldn’t want to live in even a legally-designated labor camp. Many of them have no stove indoors, so you have to cook by fire outside. What do you burn for fuel? Trash, as there is no garbage collection. Need to use a bathroom facility? Go outside somewhere for that, too. There’s no sanitary plumbing, so watch where you step.
These men did not turn their neighborhood into a slum. It was built to be one before they ever arrived. Remember, their employers have these workers’ passports and can tell them where they must live.
Just this year, a Saudi firm left 78 workers from India – already forced to live in one of these filthy camps – entirely without food and water for six months! The company kept their passports, failed to issue them identity cards needed even for free movement in the local area, neglected to provide their mandatory medical aid cards, and did not pay them their wages during that time – even though they had worked for the company since 2010. Without their passports these men couldn’t return to India, and without their required identity cards they couldn’t go anywhere else inside Saudi Arabia either.
The story only came to light in mid-2012 because they finally were able to contact the Indian consulate in Jeddah, which is about 1,000 km (620 miles) from their camp. Thanks to the consulate’s pressure, the company has since paid four of the six months’ overdue wages, but it looks like a court battle will be required to get the rest.
This is not an isolated case for either male or female foreign workers in GCC nations, which is why, as I said earlier, the suicide rate among them is so high.