Friday, July 03, 2009

Slavery to emancipation

Commentary - Executive magazine

Expatriate labor rights and living conditions in the Gulf have become hot, contentious topics once again. The BBC was the latest media player to cause concern for the Gulf's glitzy image when a reporter sneaked into a labor camp in Dubai and secretly filmed living conditions, exposing the gritty – and in this case, sewage swamped – underbelly.

Dubai took badly to the coverage, as it has been prone to do whenever the international media sticks its nose in places it shouldn't, and the company involved has been at pains to show it was an unusual case. But what has driven the issue further into international prominence was Bahrain's decision in early May to end the sponsorship system, the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to do so.

Manama decided to annul the longstanding requirement that all expatriate workers have to be sponsored by a Bahraini citizen. To be put into effect August 1, the government will be responsible for issuing work permits, which can be renewed over two years and will allow expat workers to change jobs without having to seek a sponsor's permission. This is a significant step, ending a system - known as “kafala” - that effectively shackled workers to their employer, whether a construction worker or a general manager. Indeed, in the likes of Saudi Arabia, foreign workers cannot travel from one city to another without stamped official authorization from an employer, let alone hop on an airplane.

Bahrain's bold move has resultantly garnered praise from human rights groups and international labor organizations around the world. The word now is that other GCC countries should do the same.

There is certainly momentum picking up, with Qatar saying it is studying Bahrain's move and wants to adopt the same policies, while the United Arab Emirates has signed an agreement with India and the Philippines to launch a project to improve contract workers conditions.

But as always with radical shifts in policy, Bahrain's move is causing a great deal of controversy, foremost in its own parliament and among the local business community. One party, Al Wefaq, came under fire for failing to use its influence – it has 17 of the 40 seats in the lower house - to block a clause in the law that would require foreigners to have a minimum one-year contract. Businessmen say the ruling will be detrimental to the economy by putting the country at a competitive disadvantage, while businesses will be left to foot the bill of implementation costs.

That will clearly be the case, and Bahrain would stand to lose somewhat unless other Gulf countries do the same. On the other hand, Bahrain will become a more attractive place to work for expats, and the government won't have to worry about embarrassing stories that scream of 'slavery' and 'abuse'. Or face worker strikes, like the two that happened within the space of a week in Bahrain early June. A headache in the short term is better than a migraine in the long term.

The GCC is of course easily singled out globally, given its exposure to the West and its estimated 13-15 million foreign workers, predominantly from Asia. But while the West chastises the GCC on labor rights, millions of Asians, South Americans and Africans continue to toil away in sweat shops to make cheap consumer goods for the West. Millions of migrant laborers also work illegally and often in poor conditions in the West itself.

But where the GCC is strikingly different is in the sponsorship law, and that it was foreign labor that physically built and manned the transformation of the Gulf we see today – the tallest tower, the largest mall, the artificial islands, and the endless real estate projects. These 'unsung heroes' have long been under respected and appreciated. It is also worth recalling the region's own indentured past.

In Oman earlier this year I was reading the late British explorer Wilfred Thesiger's account of crossing the Empty Quarter in 1950, Arabian Sands. He arrives at an oil prospecting camp outside of 'Dibai' with his two Bedu guides, but while Thesiger is allowed to bunk down in the 'European lines', his companions have to sleep in the 'native lines.' This disparity was further emphasized in Abdul Rahman Munif's superlative trilogy Cities of Salt, where the local Gulf Arab laborers that built the oil infrastructure slept under hot tin roofs and earned a pittance while the Americans chilled out in air conditioned compounds.

That period is still in living memory, as is Saudi Arabia only ending slavery in 1962. While that might be a difficult past to talk about, so is the present sponsorship system. The move by Bahrain to end it, and the discussion it has provoked in Qatar and the UAE, shows that workers rights do matter. It should also prove economically advantageous in the long run, given that old adage of “happy workers make productive workers.”

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