When Your Friend is a Trafficker

By Habeeb Mohammed Abu-Futtaim

Last week’s New York Times article about labor abuse in the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi facilities brought new light to the dangerous of doing business in the Arabian Gulf. For the laborers, the complaints were much the same: addition to unsanitary accommodations, low or no wages, and harsh working conditions, the men who tried to protest were rounded up by police, beaten, and deported.

I was shocked by the images of men in bunk beds, not only several to a room, but three to a structure: one on top, one on the bottom, and creating a third floor to the structure, by sleeping under the bed. How you have to be the guy on the floor is something that I can’t fathom but a metaphor of the intricate hierarchy even within the Olympics of the oppressed.

Lately the talk of the kafala (or sponsorship) system in Qatar involves highlight all the laws by which workers have their rights assured. The government isn’t the issue, many people argue, it’s the sponsors. There are hotlines where laborers can report their abuses, people often say if they’re feeling generous. This is the tack NYU’s management took, issuing statements that they can’t guarantee that contractors would uphold their fair labor agreement – an agreement they made sure to put in place before construction began. A day after the article was published, however, they did an about face and apologized. On the Internet. To workers who don’t have bathrooms with running water. The NYU response is standard of the CYA moves that an entire range of institutions are using to duck around the abuse. Instead of changing the system, they are becoming part of the problem. None of us, not even American universities, it seems, knows how to address this systemic problem of labor.

The resistance to changing conditions for low income workers follows another thought process:  what they have now must be better than the conditions they have in their home country. Why else would they come? Leaving aside the cultural relativism, bait and switch recruitment tactics and unethical work practices, like no overtime, are ignored in this logic loop.

Enforcing the law never makes the list as anyone’s chief concern.

The third common response: if they don’t like it, let them go home. Well: when you don’t have your passport and haven’t been paid for months, that is not the easy proposition it seems.

The real issue with kafala, and the absence of the application of the rule of law, is the numerous loopholes in the protection of low income laborers. No enforcement of a minimum standard of rights is rampant, particularly when it comes to domestic workers. And like the cockroaches that climb the walls of overcrowded labor housing, there are people who come out to take advantage of the unmonitored cracks in the system. They are not all nationals. In many cases, they are not even Arabs.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 10.56.42 AM
The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition

There is an underground network of people who prey on housemaids who are figuratively bound by their sponsors – some families even refer to themselves as owners. What has alarmed me in the two years I’ve been researching housemaids for my novel The Dohmestics is that they have no recourse. The labor law doesn’t apply to them. If they were hired through an agency, they have 3 months to report a problem. Like a middle age spinster, if they go back to the agency, the blame is with them, not the sponsor. They can jump the wall and flee to their employers but if their embassies won’t help them – and there are a lot of them that don’t have the political capital to be much help – then they are off the grid. Off the grid, needing to make money for children, mothers, fathers, siblings, husbands, and the most vulnerable.

What you won’t find out right away, but becomes readily apparent, is that there is an entire network of people from the domestics’ home countries waiting to make their cut off the exploitation of these undocumented workers.

5000 QR, about $1400 USD, and I can get a sponsorship transfer, or so the promise goes. But the guy, an acquaintance, takes much longer than the month he promises to deliver the papers. One turns into six and then suddenly, he can’t pay you back your money.  No visa either.

Or you talk at the playground with other domestics, women you see everyday, who you share recipes and festive occasion with, women who for all intents and purposes are as close to you as family. You talk to them as you watch your charge swing or slide. You mention how you’d like to get  a family member a job. Someone offers you help, saying they can get a visa. You accept. Once your relative arrives, the friend now becomes a broker. She wants thousands of riyals for the privilege of being the go-between. And she threatens to call the police if you don’t pay up. Your relative will be deported if you ignore her. The threats and intimidation carry over to your workplace; she works in your neighborhood, remember. She knows where you live.

I can vouch for the veracity of a few of these stories, having seen the scenarios play out first hand. There must be hundreds.

In all the coverage about low income labor, I haven’t seen anyone interview the agents themselves. The ones who poach men from villages in Nepal and India, promising lavish salaries and accommodation, procuring a year’s salary in advance. I want to ask them if they know the reality of the jobs they’re overselling. How much do they know about what really happens when they hand over the documents, and money, to travel?

Clearly the agencies know, otherwise they wouldn’t charge such an astronomical finder’s fee upfront. The commission on these contracts leaves many families wanting to make up the fee when they pass the sponsorship of the maid on. She can’t get another job unless her new sponsor is willing to pay 10000 QR to release her.

In any of the scenarios, the laborer incurs all the risk, financially, mentally, and physically.

The worst kind of trafficker has to be a same country informant. Like cockroaches, in an unmonitored system that doesn’t reward those who come forward, and punishes those who need justice the most, they thrive.


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What Has She Done? Review of Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions

Yellow sun. Orange sun.  What has she done? At first glance everything seems so ho-hum. Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions is not an exhibit that grabs your attention like other work in the same building. You may hate or love performance Mona Hatoum, for example, or find Manal Al Dowayan’s project on Saudi teachers is too narrow, but at least they elicit a visceral reaction.

With Adnan, there’s nothing to offend or excite: no human shapes, no bifurcated animals, no female genitalia. All these have been present and offended members of the public in recent examples of public art in Qatar.  Only endless empty landscapes: yellow, orange, red, and green. The primary colors appear again and again in unmediated, unrelenting, unapologetic repetition in effect creating a visual blindness. “Sweet,” you might murmur to a friend. “I don’t get you,” someone said hovering over a Josephesque tapestry.

Etel Adnan doesn’t mix her paints, you see. The oils come out of their tubes and onto the canvas. Her angles, her shapes, her instinct feels like my three year old on a Saturday morning: carefree, oblivious of the fact he should be interesting to warrant an entire floor of the Arab Museum of Modern Art.

On the surface her art is sweet, even feminine, acceptable to the public Islamic register. Her pleated, accordion fold leporello are playful; the Arabic poetry inscribed upon on them borrowed for Adnan, long an exile of the Arab world, has lost fluency in her mother tongue.

At the tune of 50,000 USD a canvas, these are worth much more than the thumb tacked paintings in my children’s playroom.

The price tag makes you take notice, if the landscapes or black and white sketches do not. You do some digging. Adnan’s strength, many argue, is as a writer who dabbles in painting. 89 years old, a lightening rod for her politics, she is a feminist Lebanese American writer, filmmaker and activist. Her private life, illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, is private in the exhibit itself; an interesting move to support alternative lifestyles while at the same time covering it.

A wall of quotes in English, Arabic, and French illuminates Adnan’s politics: “I tell myself that it would be better to let loose a million birds in the sky over Lebanon, so that these hunters could practice on then, and this carnage could be avoided.” Perhaps this is why the relentless, endless landscape: empty of humans who can wreck so much violence.

Regardless of the reason, you’ve spent this much time thinking about her. Which in itself says something.

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Everything Comes Back to Nationality

Lives saved by seat belts and airbags
Lives saved by seat belts and airbags (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently my husband became a certified diver. This meant Friday morning trips with his friends to the waters off the north coast of Qatar. This past weekend he wanted me and our two year old to come along and enjoy the beach while the gang was under the water. I managed to convince a friend to join us – even though we left at 6:30 a.m. – and we did have a great time.

What struck both of us as we were setting up, however, were the spots of white tissue and blue bottle caps scattered over the sand. “Why can’t people take their trash with them?” I asked.

She was as dismayed as I was in taking in the 100 meters or more of beautiful sand, pocked with the remnants of breakfast, lunch, and dinner barbeques.

“We’ll enjoy the morning and then do some pick up,” I suggested.

“That’s karmic yoga,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

The two year old played, with a bevy of aunties, the title Asians use for older women, whether they are related or not, at the ready to make him the sand sculptures of his dreams. Airplanes, crocodiles, and birthday cakes were his structures of choice.

3 bags of trash collected in 15 minutes
3 bags of trash collected in 15 minutes

We had lunch and then got two trash bags each. One to collect trash and one to use as a glove. Everything from stale flat bread, to leftover shrimp pizza, went into one of our three bags. Within fifteen minutes we had collected plastic bottles, tissues, bags, discarded children’s shoes, and scraps of paper. Being social media hounds, we posted our findings on Facebook and Twitter. The comments we received on the photos were telling.

“What a great idea,” someone commented. “We do cleanups here in my home state. Wonder if that would work there. Of course it would be Expats to the rescue.”

“I explained to my son about Muslim absolution,” someone else wrote. “And he asked why they litter so much if they’re supposed to be clean.”

I’m not denying that many a time in traffic I’ve been behind someone who has tossed trash out their window. Or that I got into a face off during the recent Sports Day, with a girl and two teenagers (who were likely her cousins or brothers) for tossing a finished soda can onto the green space in the park. These people were all Arabs of some kind. But I could see that they were in my interactions with them. I didn’t assume they were.

The innocuousness of picking up of trash revealed that our friends thought that most of the people who litter in Qatar are Arabs. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I do know of the twenty or so diving groups I saw that morning, only one of them seemed to be of Arab origin. In the four hours we were there, the majority of the people on the beach there were expats.

Switch to another big cause for me these days: children without seat belts, riding in the front seat or standing up in the backseats of cars. I started taking photos of these darlings last week at red lights. Again some of the comments revealed that everyone thinks this practice is done by Arabs. Even though the first photo was of an Asian looking child in the arms of his mother, showing me his toys through the open passenger side window, the association people had was that Arabs are the primary violator.

What struck me about both these instances is that assumptions about behavior based on nationality seems to come to the forefront immediately. Nationality and “why doesn’t the government do something” are knee jerk reactions to what we would otherwise consider civic responsibilities. Maybe it’s a system that pays people based on their passports – not their merit – that is to blame for the root of this ethnic divide. For the same job, it’s completely legal for companies to pay different wages to Egyptians versus Sri Lankans versus Americans. Is this where the root of mistrust begins?

I’ve been inspired by these instances to not wait for the civil authorities to decide to address the issue. After all their attempts to encourage recycling and better driving have not proved entirely successful. Rather than continuously looking to others, I’m interested in the power of individuals. Why can’t every person who sees trash on the beach pick some up? Not every piece, but whatever they have time for?

And every parent who sees someone riding without a seat belt, encourage them to use one?

In a place like Qatar, where mistrust abounds between groups, expat and national, Arabs and non-Arabs, it would be nice if we as expats could do something positive to give back to these communities which are our temporary homes.

Instead of always complaining about not being invited into Qatari homes, or never experiencing Qatari hospitality, could we pick up trash, regardless of who left it? Could we talk about the importance of child car seats? After all, we assume a certain cultural superiority when we say that littering is wrong, knowing we come from countries where this behavior is fined.  Ditto for children in car seats or seat belts.

Maybe we wouldn’t be ‘better’ people or more civilized if we didn’t have our home governments governing our civic actions.

What would we do if we didn’t have to? Who are we when laws aren’t enforced? These are the questions echoing in my head.

Next week, I’m taking this question on to another, more controversial question: the treatment of housemaids which also seems to vary according to nationality. Stay tuned.



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