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Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf

Sunday 12 May 2013

By RICHARD MORIN DOHA, Qatar

LAST year, Theresa M. Dantes signed a contract with an employment agency in the Philippines to come here to work as a housemaid for $400 a month, plus room and board. But when she arrived, her employer said he would pay her only $250. She acquiesced; her family back in Quezon City depended on her earnings.

Other surprises quickly followed. Ms. Dantes, 29, said she was fed one meal a day, leftovers from the family’s lunch: “If no leftovers, I didn’t eat.” She worked seven days a week. When she finished work in her employer’s house, she was forced to clean his mother-in-law’s house, and then his sister’s.

After eight months, Ms. Dantes tried to leave. Her boss laughed. “You can’t quit,” he told her.

Under kafala, the system that governs the working lives of every foreigner employed in Qatar, Ms. Dantes could not resign without her employer’s permission. She fled and joined 56 other women who had sought shelter at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office.

Some 1.2 million foreign workers — mostly poor Asians from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines — make up 94 percent of the labor force in Qatar, an absolute monarchy roughly the size of Connecticut.

Developed in the late 1950s in sparsely populated Persian Gulf states that needed workers for their oil and gas industries, the system has expanded to the point where there are nearly five foreign workers for each Qatari citizen. Perhaps a million foreign workers are expected to arrive in the next few years to help build nine new stadiums and $20 billion in roads needed by 2022, when Qatar will host the World Cup.

Many of these workers will labor under near-feudal conditions that Human Rights Watch has likened to “forced labor.” Qatari employers assume legal responsibility for their employees in addition to providing them with a paid job, a work visa, housing and often food. In exchange, an employee agrees to work for an employer for a fixed length of time.

But a worker cannot change jobs, leave the country, get a driver’s license, rent a home or open a checking account without the permission of his or her employer-sponsor, or kafeel. And a kafeel also can withdraw sponsorship at almost any time and send the employee home.

It’s not just housemaids and other low-skilled workers who are the victims. An Arab-American businessman, Nasser Beydoun, said he spent 685 days as an “economic hostage” in Doha before he was released in October 2011. After he quit as chief executive of a local restaurant chain, his former employer denied him a permit to leave Qatar.

“Foreign workers in Qatar are modern-day slaves to their local employers,” Mr. Beydoun, who now lives in Detroit, told me. “The local Qatari owns you.”

Only about half of foreign blue-collar workers sign formal work contracts before coming to Qatar, according to a poll by the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University. The rest come with nothing more than a verbal agreement.

Even a formal contract offers inadequate protection. A quarter of the blue-collar workers who signed contracts said employers failed to fully honor the agreements, the poll found. That proportion increased to 42 percent among the third who made less than $275 a month.

Under pressure from human rights and labor advocates, the government has promised new protections. “Seven, eight years ago we didn’t have labor laws,” said Hussein al-Mulla, under secretary of the Labor Ministry. “It is better now than before. It will be better in the future.”

The ministry has created a phone line for workers to anonymously report abuses, and a system of arbitrating labor disputes. Employers now must report paycheck details to the Labor Ministry. The country is finalizing a law setting occupational health and safety standards and a charter of workers’ rights.

But new laws are not enough. “The challenge is enforcement of these laws and establishing a new work culture,” Andrew Gardner, an anthropologist at the University of Puget Sound who studies gulf laborers, told me. “The scope of the problem is so large and the number of foreigners is growing so quickly.”

Most construction workers, security guards, household staffers and service workers come to Qatar through personnel agencies, which are hired by prospective employers and draw up the contracts. Officials in some sending countries are supposed to review the contract before they issue exit visas. The average recruiting fee for a blue-collar worker, according to the poll, is almost $1,000 for a job that typically pays about $470 a month. Most workers have to borrow to pay the fee. Among workers earning $275 or less, 80 percent take at least three months just to earn back their recruiting fee; nearly a third take six months or longer.

Foreign workers in Qatar, which has no minimum-wage law, have little recourse if they are offered wages lower than they expected, and the high fees the personnel agencies charge give employers no incentive to free their employees from their obligations.

Remarkably, some migrant workers help circumvent the very laws intended to protect them. Francisco Moceros, 50, a driver-for-hire here, said he signed a work contract for $340 a month — the Philippine government’s minimum — at an employment agency in Manila, but is paid $220. The recruiter said the listed salary was a sham, Mr. Moceros said, but he signed anyway.

Qatar’s 250,000 citizens are among the world’s richest, with a gross national income (adjusted for relative purchasing power) of $87,478 last year — about double the figure in the United States.

The typical household is served by a staff of three. Some 95 percent of Qatari families employ a housemaid; more than half have two or more. A recent survey by the research institute found that nearly 9 in 10 Qataris did not want to see the kafala system weakened; if anything, 30 percent said they wanted to see employers’ prerogatives strengthened.

This means that reform efforts “must go slowly,” Mr. Mulla, of the Labor Ministry, told me. In 2009, neighboring Bahrain allowed foreign workers to freely change jobs. Mr. Mulla agrees that the Qatari system must change: “It will be better — or it will be history.”

Until it does get better, indentured servitude on the Persian Gulf will live on. Richard Morin is a former polling editor at The Washington Post and a visiting scholar at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University.

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