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.

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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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Vietnam/Cambodia. Somalia/Rwanda. Iraq/Syria?

Me, on mount Qassioun above Damascus, 2009
Me, on mount Qassioun above Damascus, 2009

I’ve been looking for a publicist. Imagine my surprise, when in the middle of a recent chat about books, author platform, and realistic publicity goals, she asked me what people in Qatar thought about the conflict in Syria. Apparently the war has finally caught the attention of the average American. We had this conversation despite stats that Miley Cyrus has garnered 12 times more hits than the Syrian crisis.

The arguments for this conflict are dismally familiar: an Arab dictator, using chemical weapons against his own people. The specter of the Iraq war looms, reminding us the childhood parable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not necessarily a story for kids. Unlike the Cold War, we are wary of arming freedom fighters today who will likely become our antagonists tomorrow.

I have lived in the Middle East for the last 8 years. I studied Arabic in Damascus for six weeks. An amazing city, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited capital is dying along with her residents.

And yet I still didn’t pass the New York Times’ quiz on Syrian News.

The situation is complex; the history is contemporary.

Many of us may not have been alive during the draft but we have seen the photo of the young Vietnamese napalm victim.

You may not remember what the conflict in Somalia was about but you probably saw the movie Black Hawk Down.

We couldn’t have pointed to Rwanda on a map but cried buckets as Don Cheadle portrayed Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.

Perhaps that moment hasn’t come in Syrian conflict. Maybe at the height of this media age, we haven’t had the soundbite that will move us to action.

The United States has a track record of being burned in conflict (Vietnam) and then staying out when the world’s largest military could be useful (Cambodia). Such flip-flopping of foreign policy makes people skeptical of America’s intentions.

Maybe the world has lost its stomach for war; after all, John Kerry’s off hand suggestion that Syria turn over weapons to the U.N. has already been accepted in principle by Russia.

The fact is the conflict has been building with thousands of men, women, and children dying.

Perhaps now they are getting the attention they are due. Experts say we are called to action because chemical weapons are illegal. What about the other thousands who have died since the conflict started?

Perhaps their photos didn’t shock the international community as much as the shrouds of all shapes and sizes a few weeks ago.







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No Abusing Arabs in Sight

Two days before our second son was born, April 12th, the New York Times published a piece about “Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf.” The piece was categorized as news analysis. For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf (since Persia, or Iran, is a known competitor with the GCC), Richard Morin’s piece might as well have been published thirty years ago. After all there was little in the way of news or analysis.

Qataris, he stated, are known to under pay and often abuse their domestic help. Qatar is very wealthy. People are brought to work here under false promises and then have difficulty returning home.

All of this you’d know in the first four weeks of living here.

What I wish Morin had taken time to discuss is all the areas of grey. These areas of mistreatment, racism, and classism have danced around my mind as a South Asian American who has made her home in Doha since 2005. As a wife in a racially mixed marriage and the mother of two boys of multicultural background, I can’t escape the nuances of the layers of race, gender, and class in everyday life in Qatar.

Nuances that are missing from Morin’s piece but which are the chief subject of my third novel, The Dohmestics, about housemaids in an unnamed Arab emirate. Not only the housemaids, however, the

book examines their employers. This is where the NYT could have asked for more in-depth reporting. Because as both the novel and lived experience show, Qataris, are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.

The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.

You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m. and hit your much smaller in stature and status worker.

You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying 25 QR an hour for part time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.

LCL #2'sYou can be a naturalized American who stands aside as your wife berates the maid and instructs the compound guards not to let her off the property when you are traveling with your family.

You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.

The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.

Our nanny requested to take two months vacation on the eve of the arrival of our second child. We were dismayed at her request because no family was able to attend the birth. We mulled it over. After all, we ourselves, as white collar professionals, had never had a two month vacation. But how could we deny someone else her right to be with her family?

We couldn’t.

She traveled and I scrambled to find someone to help with our two year old as I lumbered around, 38 weeks pregnant and still working.

In the search for another short term employee, I spoke to no less than 15 women, all of them with different situations, considerations, and stories. No two were the same. Yet they had all received some kind of mistreatment – whether being asked to share a room and a bed with the ailing grandfather they were taking care of – from low wages, to yelling, to hitting, to that ultimate violation, sexual assault.

We managed to find someone who was shy, full of smiles, and whose antics made us laugh. She cooked steak for dinner, leaving it in the oven for 40 minutes. Needless to say it was more like beef jerky when it came out. Is this what you would shout at someone for?

I went out with her and my two boys one morning, only to discover we had left the diaper bag at home. I thought she had it. She thought I had it. Is that what you would hit someone over?

This same woman was paying half her salary to rent a room from someone for whom she woke up at 4:30 everyday so she could make her landlord’s breakfast, iron her clothing, and anything else she needed. She sent home 100 QR a month to her teenage daughter (the equivalent of $30 USD). No abusing Arabs in sight in this scenario.

The one commonality of the ‘maid’ stories I have heard during my interview project (The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition) is that the nationality of the perpetrator changed. Sometimes they were Arab. Other times (to my horror) Indian. Occasionally British. Not unusual for a non-real American, or the way someone who has a Western passport but isn’t white is often referred to (my husband and myself included).

The fact is the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.

What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.

Each of us knows only in the quiet of our own hearts whether we really would want to work for someone like us. And that’s regardless of where we come from.  That’s an angle the NYT could have used if they really wanted to show the extent of abuse possible for these women who put their lives in our hands and homes.


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