Writing in the Sunday Telegraph on July 31, Britain's new prime minister, Theresa May, stated, "Last year I introduced the world-leading Modern Slavery Act to send the strongest possible signal that victims were not alone and that those responsible for this vile exploitation would face justice". Yet these campaigns to tackle modern slavery carefully overlook the countries in the Arab world in which slave-ownership is permitted by the legislation.
In 2015, the Modern Slavery Act came into British law to address heightened levels of human trafficking (now considered by criminals to be more lucrative than drug-smuggling) and the treatment of many of the servants of wealthy foreigners.
Like their wealthy employers, these indentured servants are shepherded straight from an incoming flight to a car waiting on the tarmac, and do not pass through immigration or customs. They are not treated like the rest of us -- the supremely wealthy and their employees live under different laws. As such, cases of servant mistreatment rarely get to be heard in court. The few cases that go to trial are the result of these servants escaping the clutches of their "employers," and the stories they tell are horrific (albeit largely unpunished and unreported for political reasons).
One example was documented in the Daily Mail on March 15, 2011. An African servant was forced to sleep on the floor, a situation she endured at first for £10 a month "wages" until her employer, a female doctor of Asian origin, decided not to pay her anything at all.
A court interpreter in the UK, who works in Arabic and asked to remain anonymous, has told me even worse stories about escaping "servants" who managed to report to a police station, where she got to meet them and interpreted for them. The employers, mostly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, are rarely prosecuted.
Bribery by Qatar
As the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaches, it is worth investigating the labour practices of the host country, Qatar, which are certainly in breach of even previous European legislation, let alone the Modern Slavery Act. According to Greg Dyke, former Chairman of the British Football Association (BFA), and other BFA officials, Qatar offered bribes to FIFA to be able to host the event.
Qatar, like Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (the Gulf States) operates under the kafala (or kefala) system (Arabic: نظام الكفالة niẓām al-kafāla). This translates from Arabic as "sponsorship system," but is in fact a brutal way of controlling the foreign workforce that provides virtually all of the labour in the wealthiest countries of the Arab world.
The Evils of Kafala
Under the kafala system, any foreigner seeking or being offered employment in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States, including Bahrain, the Emirates and Qatar, has to have a "sponsor" (an employer, agency, or middleman through whom they were offered the job) who arranges their visa. In return, each foreign worker's passport is confiscated by the employer or agency. This means that the employee has no right to change jobs or leave the country without the permission of the person holding his/her passport. Needless to say, employers and agents rarely give such permission.
This exploitation of foreign labour has been criticized by many human rights organizations. According to The Economist, "The system [also] blocks domestic competition for overseas workers..."
Exploitation in Qatar
In November, 2013, Amnesty International published a report about construction workers in Qatar. According to Salil Shetty, then Secretary-General of Amnesty International,
"The world's spotlight will continue to shine on Qatar in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, offering the [British] government a unique chance to demonstrate on a global stage that they are serious about their commitment to human rights and can act as a role model to the rest of the region."
Recent visitors to Qatar have taken photographs of the appalling squalor in which foreign construction workers live. They are forced to sleep in tiny cell-like rooms in which they barely have room to lie down. There are no proper sanitary or kitchen facilities.
According to an article published in the British Guardian newspaper on December 23, 2014 -- a newspaper normally supportive of the Arabs -- Nepalese migrant workers are dying at the rate of one every two days, from work accidents or from sheer exhaustion, as they labour to build the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The family of a Nepalese worker, who died in Qatar while working on a football stadium site, prepares to bury him in Nepal. Foreign labourers in Qatar work in dangerous conditions, and Nepalese labourers alone die at the rate of one every two days. (Image source: Guardian video screenshot)
Kafala Applied to Employees of Every Grade
It is often assumed that the kafala system is only applied to workers from third-world countries employed in blue-collar jobs, such as domestic service and the construction sector. This perception is false -- kafala applies to all foreign workers, even those hired for top jobs.
For instance, on November 14, 2013, The Guardian published the story of Zahir Belounis, a French footballer held against his will in Qatar. He had been hired on a five-year contract by a local football club because the club wanted to use him to get into a higher division. Once the club had been promoted, it stopped paying Belounis' wages but would not let him leave the country, continuing to hold on to his passport. He was trapped in his apartment with no income and a family to feed. In desperation, Belounis appealed to the president of France and to footballing personalities throughout the world. Finally, after 19 months, he was allowed to leave.
On September 30, 2009, the English-language daily "Flanders Today" reported:
"Philippe Bogaert, the Flemish businessman held hostage in Qatar for more than a year, is back home after escaping by boat under cover of darkness. Bogaert went to Qatar in October 2008 to work for the local subsidiary of a Belgian company. When the Qatari partners pulled out of the contract, the company became bankrupt, and Bogaert resigned. Under Qatari law, he was only allowed to leave the country if a release form was signed by his sponsor, a former business partner. The partner refused, leaving Bogaert without a job, without an income, and with no way to leave."
The French newspaper L'Express published a similar report on August 2, 2013:
"Nasr Al-Awartany, a Frenchman of Jordanian origin, is stuck in his hotel in Doha. He is unable to leave Qatar and return to his family in France because his Qatari associate, who is also his sponsor, is denying him an exit visa. This is not an unusual occurrence [author's emphasis]... An incredible 80% of the population [of Qatar] are foreigners... The case has gone to court, but it could last for years and in the meantime, Nasr's exit visa has been denied."
According to Doha News in an article published on December 25, 2014, changes to the kafala law in Qatar are due to be implemented on December 14, 2016. They will include the ability to appeal refusal of exit permits, and expatriates whose employment has ended will no longer need approval to take up other work. Whether it will be applied or not in practice is another matter.
Bahrain allegedly abolished the kafala system in 2012, but according to experts, including Andrew Gardner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound, this was merely for the sake of appearances and the system continues in practice. In Qatar, the new law will only apply -- if applied at all -- to foreigners who took up employment after the law was passed.
Josephine Bacon is a journalist, author, and translator based in London. She is an active member of the British Labour Party and the Cooperative Party.