Nadim Siraj, EmpireDiaries.com
There are some migrant stories that you often get told about. And then there are those that are off limits – because they’re too dark, too unnerving. Even many mainstream migration experts won’t tell you those migrant tales.
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 part of the planet.
The location where this con act of mass slavery happens is a 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 an oasis for everyone who lands up there. For many, it’s a quicksand.
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 talking about an estimated 3-to-5 million low-income Bangladeshi migrants entrapped in the six sheikhdoms – Saudi Arabia, UAE (United Arab Emirates), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Bangladesh’s 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 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 poor hinterland, with the odd guy coming from the cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong.
The majority is from the poorest of the poor villages, and they are easy targets as they get ensnared to climb 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, while some are quite well-established, self-made entrepreneurs, too.
But this article is not about that minor section that deservedly lives a good life. It’s about the majority section that faces exploitative labour practices.
So, how do these guys end up in the Gulf?
In their desperation to wriggle of poverty, they leave their native places and land up in the oil kingdoms 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 farms, oil refineries, garages, construction sites, back-offices, factories, outdoor coffee shops, shopping malls, departmental stores, mom-and-pop shops, and food courts at malls.
Many others get hired to work as ‘hands’ at large family homes in the villages, basically ending up playing multitasking roles – from keeping the villas clean, to cooking, to looking after the gardens and farmlands.
SLAVES OF THE MASTERS
So, surely their lifestyles improve when they move to the Gulf?
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 to stay up for that.
It’s the same plight across the board. No weekly offs. They have to perpetually wear plastic smiles on their faces and slog it out throughout the year, only to get a rare off-day or two on the two Eid holidays.
Their work cycle 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 skeletal tin-and-brick huts. Oftentimes they get these low-ceiling garage-like spaces to live in that are rundown.
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. If the heat wipes them out, who will keep the Gulf clean and glittering?
MASTERS OF THE ‘SLAVES’
Now we come to the migrants’ bosses, the ‘sponsors’. They’re locally known as ‘arbabs’. Sheikh or no sheikh by title, 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, the first thing that they experience is their ‘owners’ 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 ended 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 passport with a signed undertaking of your release, loosely called an NOC (no objection certificate).
This rigid and notorious ‘kafala’ system shuts out the scope for healthy poaching, and with that, it chains the migrant to his master for good.
CAN’T RUN, CAN’T HIDE
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.
The families of these workers are so finance-starved that despite the temptation to tear up their Gulf work visas once back home in Bangladesh, the migrants reluctantly head back to the desert after the vacation – only for the sake of keeping the overseas livelihood route open.
While you wonder why 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 Islamic 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 showrooms or as drivers at multinational companies or as helping hands in wealthy Arab bungalows.
The agents in Bangladesh, who are Bangladeshi locals and fully aware of the perils, 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 takas per head.
It’s an astronomical sum of money for a 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 kingdom.
The booking money usually includes: local agent’s fee; charge 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; fee for the agent who’s waiting in the Gulf to receive the candidate; and an additional charge to be paid to the eventual recruiter.
DISILLUSIONMENT, MUCH TOO LATE
For many young Bangladeshi migrants, the illusion wears off the moment they’re handed over to their owners or sponsors upon arrival in the Gulf.
A series of jolts hit them.
Jolt one, the receiving agent claims (usually deceitfully) that he’s not been paid his fee, and tries to extricate that amount from the newly arrived. Obviously, the migrant is caught unawares and is unable to pay up the money immediately. He feels cheated, but has no option but to promise to pay up the fee in instalments from the meagre wages he’ll earn from his new 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 is established.
Jolt three, the jobs that are hurled at them, the wages or salaries they’re told they’ll earn, and the woeful places they’re thrown into for residing don’t match at all with what they were 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. Plus, he has to pay the so-called unpaid fees of the receiving agent and/or recruiter.
Interestingly, for those residing in the Gulf, it’s not difficult to spot this sizeable population of enslaved Bangladeshis.
They can be seen at shops, petrol pumps, low-end eateries, garages, back-offices, often cleaning cars at parking lots, running chores in traditional family homes, serving as caretakers and date-farm gardeners in the villages, and working as 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 love for Islam. Yet, when it comes to their twisted philosophy of treating the Bangladeshi migrant population, 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. Yet, the Gulf countries are literally serviced by the Bangladeshi migrant population.
Truth indeed appears stranger than fiction if one digs deep into how unapologetically the Gulf kingdoms run this darkest ‘slave’ system in modern history.
(The writer has lived in West Asia. Observations are based on multiple first-hand experiences and interactions. Names of the migrants interviewed have been withheld for their protection)