New Delhi: There are some migrant stories that you often get told about. And then there are those that are off limits – because they’re too chilling, too dark. Even many mainstream migration experts won’t tell you those migrant tales.
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This article is about this second type of migrant stories. It’s about how a certain section of the human race is systematically conned into signing up as modern-day slaves, even as they live (and die) in the most seemingly tranquil parts of the planet.
The location where this grand con act of mass slavery happens is an oil-soaked region that glitters with towering skyscrapers, dazzling shopping malls, high-end sports cars, beautiful desert camps and cosmopolitan populations.
Well, we’ve just parachuted you into the Gulf region. Located in the heart of West Asia (called Middle East by the West), the Gulf – for all its petrodollar fairytales – is not a utopian oasis for everyone who lands up there.
THE ROT UNDER THE SHINE
For a certain unfortunate category of humans in the six Gulf countries, the Arab world glitter is a gift wrapper deceptively holding together a maggot-infested rot bursting at the seams.
We’re basically talking about an estimated 3-to-5 million low-income Bangladeshi migrants hopelessly entrapped in the six hallowed sheikhdoms – Saudi Arabia, UAE (United Arab Emirates), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Bangladesh’s disoriented migrant population is shackled to the Gulf’s desert rose via an unforgiving employment trap known infamously as the ‘kafala system’. It’s a system where you basically sign up to a lopsided slave-master relationship instead of a rights-based employee-recruiter model.
So who are these few million Bangladeshis we are talking about? What do we know about them?
BORN INTO POVERTY
They’re mostly malnutrition-hit young men who are school dropouts, desperate job-seekers, hailing from Bangladesh’s excruciatingly poor hinterland, with the odd guy coming from the cities such as Dhaka.
Since a large majority is from the poorest of the poor villages, they become easy targets as they get ensnared to get onto the Gulf’s conveyor belt of ‘bonded labourers’.
It’s important to note that there’s a minor section of Bangladeshi migrants in the Gulf who are highly-skilled, highly educated and are into super-specialisation jobs in the posh cities of the Gulf region, while some are quite well-established, self-made entrepreneurs too.
But this article is not about that minor section. It’s about the majority section that faces exploitative labour practices there.
So, how do these guys end up in the Gulf? In their desperation to wriggle of poverty, they leave their native places behind and land up in the oil kingdoms in a bid to change their fortunes.
What do they do in the Gulf for a living? They’re mostly hired as gardeners. We’re not talking about idyllic rose-and-jasmine gardens here. The migrants are hired to man sprawling, cruel tracts of date-palm farmlands through scorching summers when the mercury sometimes touches the 50 degrees Celsius mark.
The next big chunk is construction labourers for industrial and residential building projects. Also, they’re roped in as cleaners, janitors, cooks, waiters, drivers, loaders, watchmen, painters, mechanics, barbers, tailors, delivery boys and caretakers.
Most of them get sucked into working in oil refineries, garages, back-offices, factories, outdoor coffee shops, shopping malls, departmental stores, mom-and-pop shops, and food courts at malls.
Many others also get hired to work as ‘hands’ at large family households in the Arab villages, basically ending up playing multitasking roles – from keeping the homes clean, to cooking for everybody, to looking after the gardens and farmlands.
‘SLAVES’ OF THE MASTERS
So, surely their lifestyles improve when they move to the Gulf? Well, that’s a mirage. Here’s what they have to put up with after landing up in the land of false promises: they get profiled, bullied, herded, humiliated, tortured, ridiculed, misused, abused, heckled, bad-mouthed, ignored, sleep-deprived, misunderstood, and in some cases assaulted.
In three words, they’re underfed, underpaid and overworked.
This, in a nutshell, is the life and times of the average low-income Bangladeshi migrant in the Gulf – barring very, very few exceptions. The exceptions – low-paid Bangladeshis living the good life in the Gulf – is a drop in an ocean.
The jobs they are into do fetch salaries or wages, but the incomes come with strings attached. There’s a shocking work-life imbalance.
There are no sane shifts or work hours. Those working on date farms have to get off their cots at four in the morning. When the day’s work is done, it’s well past sundown. Even if there’s time to cook a modest meal before crashing into their cots, they’re too exhausted.
It’s the same plight across the board. No weekly offs. None at all. They have to wear a perpetual plastic smile on their faces and slog it out through the year, only to get a rare off-day or two on the occasion of Eid and Bakr-Eid.
It’s a daily cycle that runs like clockwork, seven days a week, 30 days a month, 365 days a year.
Their living conditions compete well with their pitiful work life. They are given outhouses to reside in, which are just basic tin-and-brick huts, if not worse. Oftentimes they get these low-ceiling house-like settings that are rundown and shabby.
In many cases, they are crammed into squalid little rooms, with bed bugs and dilapidated air conditioners for company.
The ACs work, yes. And that’s only to make sure the dirt-cheap labour doesn’t die out en masse. If the heat wipes them out, who will keep the Gulf glittering and clean?
MASTERS OF THE ‘SLAVES’
Now we come to the migrants’ bosses, the ‘sponsors’. They’re locally hailed as ‘arbabs’. Sheikh or no sheikh, they ensure their relationship with the migrant recruits is that of the centuries-old master-slave order.
Once the Bangladeshis land up at their destination, first thing that they experience is their ‘owner’ taking possession of their passports. It’s their way of taking pre-emptive action to ensure their slaves stay indebted to them and don’t revolt.
While the good thing is that across the Gulf, most corporate entities and government bodies have in recent years stopped the practice of withholding passports, many slave owners at the individual level continue to do it. It’s a gross violation of human rights.
By taking their passports away from them, the ‘arbabs’ also ensure that their under-pressure slaves don’t wander off to other jobs or get poached.
In the Gulf, you can switch jobs only if your boss let’s you go by releasing your invaluable passport with a signed undertaking of release, loosely called an NOC (no objection certificate).
The ‘kafala’ system basically shuts out the scope for healthy poaching, and with that, it chains the reluctant migrant to his master for good.
CAN’T RUN, CAN’T HIDE
Point is, an estranged migrant can’t just wake up one fine morning, dash off to the airport and board a flight back to Bangladesh. He’s not in possession of his passport. He has to wait for a year, or two, or three, for his owner to release his passport so that he can go visit his native land for a month or so, and then head back to slavery.
The families of these ensnared workers are so finance-starved that despite the temptation for the migrants to tear up the Gulf work visa once back home in Bangladesh, they reluctantly head back to the desert after vacation – just for the sake of keeping the overseas livelihood route open.
While you wonder why the wide-eyed Bangladeshi kids repeatedly end up in the Gulf trap, it’s because a deceptive recruitment (read: entrapment) channel is firmly in place.
Angered by the hopelessness of their lives in Bangladesh’s poverty-hit villages, and mistakenly charmed by the seemingly similar Muslim orientation of the Gulf kingdoms, the young wannabes fall easy prey to ‘dalaals’ or agents on the prowl across the country’s heartland, scouting for cheap labour.
Wherever these opportunistic agents come across prospective candidates, they pounce on them.
AGENTS SELLING PIPE DREAMS
Intoxicating Arab world pipe dreams are used as bait. The rural youngsters are lulled by non-existing job offers – respectable positions at glitzy malls or at well-maintained hospitals or in luxury hotels or with high-end car companies or as drivers at top international companies or as helping hands in wealthy, traditional Arab households.
The agents in Bangladesh, who are locals and fully aware of the perils of blue-collar Gulf jobs, motivate these youngsters to coax their poor families to put together the money required to ‘book’ a Gulf job. On average, this booking amount comes to three to five lakh Bangladeshi rupees per head.
It’s an astronomical sum of money for any poor rural family in Bangladesh’s hinterland. In many cases, the womenfolk sell off ancestral jewellery, the men sell off farmland and cattle, and entire families wade neck-deep into debt to finance their kids’ dream elevation to life in a Gulf sheikhdom.
The booking money usually includes: local agent’s fees; charges for a humiliating full-body medical check-up (where candidates are disrespectfully probed, prodded and blood-tested) at a Gulf-authorised test centre; payment for visa and flight ticket; fees for the agent who’s waiting in the Gulf to receive the candidate; and some charges to be paid to the recruiter or eventual ‘boss’.
DISILLUSIONMENT, MUCH TOO LATE
For many young Bangladeshi migrants, the illusion wears off and the reality hits them like a brick on the head the moment they’re handed over to their owners or sponsors upon arrival in the Gulf.
A series of jolts await them there.
Jolt one, the receiving agent claims (usually wrongfully) that he’s not been paid his fees, and tries to extricate that amount from the newly-arrived. Obviously the migrant is caught unawares and is unable to pay up that amount. He feels cheated, but has no option but to promise to pay up the fees from the meagre wages he’ll earn at his job.
Jolt two, the sponsor does what he does best upon taking ‘possession’ of his slave – snatch the passport away. That’s the moment the slave-master relationship takes off.
Jolt three, the jobs that are hurled at them, the wages or salaries they are told they’ll earn, and the woeful places they are thrown into for residing are all totally different from what they are initially promised.
Jolt four – and that’s the worst one – is the realisation that there’s no turning back. Simply because the migrant has to now earn money for years on end in the Gulf in order to be able to pay off the debts shouldered by his family back in Bangladesh to bankroll this Gulf trip.
Interestingly, for those residing in the Gulf, it’s not difficult to spot this enormous population of enslaved yet genial Bangladeshis.
They can be seen at shops, low-end eateries, garages, back-offices, often cleaning cars at parking lots, running chores in traditional households, serving as caretakers and date-farm gardeners in the villages, and working as long-distance drivers.
If you drive across the length and breadth of each of the six Gulf countries, you will sometimes bump into what are locally called ‘labour camps’ tucked away between dunes and rocky hills.
Underpaid Bangladeshis who work in factories, workshops and major project sites are the ones who usually reside in these labour camps, where buses arrive at daybreak to ferry them to their workplaces and drop them back in the evening.
ONE GULF, TWO WORLDS
The sheikhs and sheikhdoms of the Gulf are known for their opulence and their fanatical love for Islam. Yet, when it comes to their twisted philosophy of treating Bangladeshi migrant populations, things just don’t add up.
Neither the opulence of the upper classes trickles down to the slaves, nor do the so-called fierce defenders of Islam give special treatment to the Bangladeshis for the sake of Islamic brotherhood.
The Gulf countries are literally serviced by the Bangladeshi migrant population. Yet, for all the ruling families’ big talk about upholding Islamic values as the epicentre of the religion, the mostly-Muslim Bangladeshi ‘slaves’ continue to live dreadful lives.
Truth indeed appears stranger than fiction if one digs deep into how unapologetically the Gulf kingdoms run this darkest ‘slave’ system in our modern history.
(The writer has lived in West Asia. Observations are based on first-hand experiences)