No kidding. Someone on the Facebook page requested that I write a piece on migrant workers. I guess there is plenty to cover there, from desperate construction workers committing suicide, to sexual abuse of domestic staff, child labour, women trafficked into prostitution etc. The list could go on. We all know about the Indian man who threw himself off the Burj Khalifa a while back. My friend Baba Sanfoor told me just the other day about a case here in Oman of a Moroccan hairdresser who someone had attempted to force into prostitution as soon as she arrived. A police officer I was talking to just recently had his own tales, many and varied. And I remember a few years ago discovering that the contract cleaners where I worked had all had their (OR30/$80 per month) contracts terminated, to be re-employed at OR20/$54 instead. A sad situation, and one of many.
So let's not kid ourselves: human trafficking is a serious problem in the GCC. Most people don't even know what constitutes "trafficking", but a good definition is here, described by the UN and covering all the main areas. If you can't be bothered to read it all, then the essence is this: if someone has been tricked, deceived, lied to about what they will be doing or how much they will get for it, or where they will be working, or if they have been pressured in any way to accept something they didn't want to do, then they have been "trafficked".
The construction worker who thinks he's getting $100 and only gets $50, or who thinks he's working in a city and is put in a remote location. The person who is told on arrival that he owes extra "fees" for having been placed in a job. The girl who is told she's working in a shop or a salon and on arrival finds she's asked to be a prostitute. The people who find themselves in any situation where they are threatened with demands for money or compliance, while their passports are withheld or they are prevented from leaving by some other means, or threatened in any way - with false legal claims, debt collectors going to their families, or just not being paid what they were expecting. Those are the people we're talking about, and I imagine every one of us, all we khaleeji-residents and khaleej-citizens, we all have a story or two. A couple of mine you've already heard.
If you were to read the international press on this subject, you'd pretty soon get the idea that the GCC countries are a hotbed of trafficking, slavery, sexual assault and every kind of human rights abuse. Which is offensive if you come from one of these countries, or even if you don't but have somehow been absorbed to a degree into its society and come to love it as your own. The most upsetting thing about those accusations is that basically they're true to some degree or other. Like most countries of the world, this stuff happens. Unlike a lot of those countries though, the GCC has neither the excuse that most cases are discovered and dealt with, or that it is just too poor and lawless to tackle the problem.
We know it goes on. We even know it goes on a lot. We have the means to deal with it. But we also know that it frequently goes unpunished. There is a long way to go, in information, access to legal redress, and some really nasty cultural attitudes to nationals of other countries who many see as beneath them - fellow humans, fellow Muslims even in many cases, dehumanised by their lack of education and the colour of their passport. So it's all pretty awful then, right?
Well yes and no. The thing is, while the international media delight in images of indentured servants carrying fat sheikhs around on Cadillac-shaped litters, with chained slave girls peeling their grapes, the GCC has actually been doing something about it. Sure, there are still some big questions about minimum wages, working practices and actually getting more prosecutions initiated, and concluded. But not many people report that GCC countries have been getting a lot more serious about anti-trafficking measures of late.
One of the main issues has always been information. How do you get the message across to a man from Kerala who hasn't even attended primary school and can barely write his own name, that he has rights? A lack of education doesn't make him stupid, and even if it did, the most simple-minded soul knows that if someone promises him something and he gets something less, he's been robbed. What he doesn't know, as an illiterate man unable to read, or even to interact directly with his employers as he has no understanding of English or Arabic, is what to do about it. In this area, there have been some good moves. The anti-trafficking regulations adopted in Oman were translated into sixteen languages. Every embassy was informed, and asked to disseminate leaflets and verbal guidance to their communities. It doesn't necessarily help every labourer isolated by illiteracy and language, but it's a start.
My friend from the Royal Oman Police told me about the efforts they had made to distribute all this information, and to make their own employees properly aware. He felt that some embassies simply didn't want the workload of helping all their mistreated nationals to file cases against their employers. Maybe so, and maybe the Government should take some more of that burden. But either way, the portrayal in some media of Gulf countries indifferent to trafficking is grossly unfair. Certainly here in Oman, there is increasing awareness and practical effort.
There is one more ray of sunshine in this picture as of yesterday, and that is the reason I've made this post now. On 16 June 2011, the annual conference of the International Labour Organisation, adopted the Convention on Domestic workers, with an accompanying recommendation that it be legally binding upon the signatories. Great news. This means that like other workers, the much-abused housemaid, cook, driver or live-in gardener, has become a human being whose job should be treated like anyone else's. Fixed working hours (would any of us accept being asked to work at any time of day or night on the whim of our employer, and for no extra money?) At least 24 continuous hours of rest every week (i.e. a day off - again, who wouldn't insist on at least that?) And of course the usual things, like being paid what they are supposed to be paid, and not being exploited by agents who demand from them impossible fees to be recovered from their salaries.
I think most of us feel some sympathy for construction workers out in the sun doing hard manual labour for little reward. But the housemaid seems to have a strange place in the public consciousness. A friend of mine described quite recently how he had "given his maid" to someone else for a while. As if she were his car, or a set of screwdrivers. I am trying to imagine my reaction to being moved out of my house one day and sent to a completely new place of work, without a word of consultation. Another friend I had once described to me how his maid had "escaped" while they were on holiday. To which I wondered why she wasn't able to leave his employment any time she wished? As for fixed working hours, a regular and uninterrupted day off, proper accommodation and the freedom to use it as they please...these are distant dreams, surely? Things on which you or I would insist absolutely. And now they are about to be the law - for everyone.
The thing about the housemaid "escaping" is almost funny, as if she were a caged hamster and somehow making a break for freedom based on some primitive desire that needed to be constrained for her own good. Some western governments have been so horrified at the practice of keeping maids locked in the house, unable to leave without permission, that they have instituted special visa and asylum guidance, designed specifically to facilitate the "escape" of housemaids from their GCC employers.
So with that in mind, you would imagine that the ILO's latest convention would have been championed by those same countries. But you would be wrong, at least partly: the favourite destination for housemaids to escape their abusive employers is the UK. Surprisingly though, the UK is one of the few countries to abstain on this new convention and its legally-binding status. Why? I couldn't tell you, but I imagine it's to do with one political party's eternal mantra of a "flexible labour market", and the unpopularity in the more right-wing quarters of this, that larger ruling party, of anything that could be called a "devolution of sovereignty" to international organisations. If this were European legislation, I supposed it could have been even worse.
But the plus side is this: every one of the GCC countries has voted in favour of the Convention. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are all parties to it. After initial reservations on its binding status, they have all agreed. Workers' rights, days off, fixed hours etc., are to become the legal right of housemaids just like the rest of us. Yes, it might take a generation of re-education, both for domestic workers and for their employers. I have no doubt either that the will to implement and enforce the new rules might well be frustratingly weak from the governments of the GCC, and that enforcement might be piecemeal and even incompetent. But never mind that. There was an opportunity to take an important step in the right direction, and for once it's the freedom-loving West that's lagging a little behind, and the GCC with the moral high ground. I hope they use it well.