Laborers, Indentured Servants, Run-aways, Modern-Day Slaves, Abused Workers Are All Too Common in Era of Globalization

An ongoing campaign by CNN, since 2011, estimates that 40 million people are victims of modern-day slavery, including human trafficking, forced labor, abuse of wage and hour laws, debt bondage, domestic servitude, commercial sexual exploitation, child labor, forced marriage, child soldiers, and forced sex acts for money,   (See the CNN report, “What Is Modern Slavery?“)

Severe economic exploitation is the “dark underbelly of globalization,” says Siddharth Kara, a senior fellow at Harvard University, as unscrupulous private sector companies seek to maximize profit. Kara is the author of “Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective.” He spoke at the United Nations in 2017 and the discussion was audio-streamed.

The quick, free-flow of goods, services, capital and labor all over the world may have been “the rising tide that lifted all boats” since the 1990s, but globalization has also led to extreme disparities in wealth and working conditions. Citizens historically have been able to organize, lobby and even strike for labor rights, enforcement of employment contracts and regulation of work environments. But guest workers, expats, laborers who are not citizens complain only at risk of deportation.

March 14  each year is “My Freedom Day,” a day-long student-driven event to raise awareness of contemporary slavery. CNN has chronicled horrific stories from around the world, posted on its website. But the subject is a sensitive and controversial. Governments often do not cooperate, and have even been known to block and completely deny CNN reports that cast their country in an unfavorable light.  (See “Slavery in Mauritania” as an example.)

“Far From Home: In today’s hyper-connected world, many developing countries find that their most lucrative export is people. The foreign workers and their families must grapple with an inevitable trade-off: emotional loss for material gain,” wrote National Geographic in a 2014 report. It painted a pretty sad picture of foreign laborers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

I will never forget the Emirati student who revealed to the class matter-of-factly that her mother’s car hit and killed an Indian laborer as he was crossing the street. “He ran out in front of the car on purpose,” my student said, without emotion, “because he wanted his family to get the blood money.”

Indeed, blood money, which courts in the UAE order to be paid when someone is deemed responsible for another person’s death or dismemberment, might be $25,000 or $50,000, enough to set a loved one up for a comfortable life in rural India or another South Asian country. To suggest an Indian laborer killed himself on purpose so his family could receive largesse was my student’s way of dehumanizing or “othering” him.

Occasionally Emirati students expressed or wrote of their empathy for the plight and sacrifice of laborers. A few students organized charity drives to provide laborers with water and snacks while working in the hot sun. Their empathy was comparable to the paternalistic empathy white plantation owners had for their slaves in the antebellum South of the US.

In other words, Gulf State Arabs are mostly as morally blind as my Confederate ancestors and racist relatives in the Old South. Comparing Europe, Turkey, the Middle East and much of Asia to America, I observed ironically in my travels that the US is among the least bigoted countries because the rest of the world is so racist.

And yet extreme worker exploitation and even slavery certainly exists in the US: An estimated 17,000 foreign nationals and 400,000 Americans are victims of human trafficking, 80 percent of them women and children. (Source.)

Laborers from South Asia living in the Gulf States do send billions of dollars in remittances home each year, significantly raising the standard of living of citizens in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Philippines.

While some laborers’ situations are indeed sad and desperate, others are triumphant. I knew a life guard at a swimming pool in Abu Dhabi who, through very easy work sitting around a pool each day spending hours talking to relatives back home, made enough in two years to build a house in Sri Lanka where his wife and children would be very comfortable, if not living by his country’s standards, in luxury.

Shipping used furniture, televisions, electronics, clothing discarded by Western expats back to their homes in South Asia made for happy spouses, siblings and children.

I knew other laborers who were very conscientious in their jobs but lived in fear of the autocratic boss who would find imaginary fault in something they did, and punitively ship them off to a less choice assignment out of town. They had no recourse. With debts they were trying to pay off back home, their lives was akin to indentured servitude.

“Why would a newly wealthy nation expect its adults to wait tables or pour cement in 120-degree-Fahrenheit heat when it could afford to invite outsiders to perform these tasks?” journalist Cynthia Gorney asked in the NG piece. “Of the 2.1 million people in Dubai, only about one in ten is Emirati. The rest are the global economy’s loaners, working on temporary contracts with the understanding that they will never be offered Emirati citizenship.”

“The society they live in, like most of the gulf countries now relying on foreign workers, is as rigidly layered as was 19th-century industrial America, and in many of the same ways: by race, gender, class, country of origin, English-language fluency.”

In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, “the professionals and managers are largely Europeans, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians—white people who mostly make too much money to be thought of as remittance workers. Their salaries let them bring over their families, drive Range Rovers, and move into elegant high-rises or landscaped villas. It is remittance workers who cook for them too and look after their children, who clean the streets, staff the shopping malls, fill out the pharmacy prescriptions, run the hockey rink Zambonis, and build the skyscrapers in the scorching sun outside…”

South Asian women, in particular, are vulnerable. “The lucky ones landed humane employers who treated them respectfully, but too often the accounts were grim: no time off, unyielding isolation, verbal abuse from the women in the household, sexual abuse from the men.”

My family and church tried to assist these laborers during our time in the UAE. We provided toiletries for run-away maids, and clothing for laborers. The government gave lip service to projects like this, pointing to enlightened laws against abuses — that were rarely enforced. The government never followed up on enforcement or in making significant changes to reduce or end the exploitation.

New York Times exposés from 2014 through 2017 on the exploitation of laborers who built New York University in Abu Dhabi were generally not available in print in the UAE. They were, however, online. But the last article in 2018 reported that NYU reneged on promised reforms.

Such is one reality of globalization: indentured servitude and near-slavery still exist. Nothing less than a new abolitionist movement, in which the consciences of Gulf State natives with some political power are pricked, will change it. The slavery abolitionist movement in the US took 300 years. I don’t see many signs that it is moving faster in the Gulf States.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair.


Alex Buie (far right) and his church group donating clothing and toiletries to runaway maids at the Filipino embassy in 2012.


Church members donated clothes to laborers in Abu Dhabi, 2011. 

The rest of the NG story, with evocative pictures, is well worth reading. Click here to do so.

Related from National Geographic Magazine:


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