The Exploitation of Immigrant Workers in the Middle East
Why is the international community dead silent about a widespread barbaric phenomenon?
(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/07/abuseworkers.jpg)Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay Johnson, a world traveler, a professional in the Health Care business, and a human rights activist. One of his main research fields is the exploitation of immigrant workers in the Middle East – a phenomenon that he has witnessed first-hand in his travels. Visit his website, gcchumanrights.org, which is dedicated to improving working conditions for immigrants and the rights of citizens in general in Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
FP: Jay Johnson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about the exploitation of immigrant workers in the Middle East
But first, give us a bit of background about yourself and how you came to be interested in the rights of immigrant workers in the Middle East.
Johnson: Thank you Jamie for the opportunity to be interviewed in Frontpage Magazine.
I am native to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and work as a computer consultant in the Healthcare industry. For several years, I have had the opportunity to visit Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
During my travels, I found the Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans to be very hospitable people. Of course, they have had their own internal problems for a long time – India versus Pakistan, political conflicts in Sri Lanka, etc. However, when it came to outside visitors they have been quite hospitable. I found the people of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) have been very intelligent, compassionate, and honest.
During those same visits to South Asia, I also had the opportunity to visit Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. – the Gulf Cooperation Council states. There I found the condition of South Asian immigrants to be so intolerable that people in the outside world need to know about it and push their governments to exert pressure for reasonable change in that inhumane situation.
FP: What is the Gulf Cooperation Council? Why are there South Asian Immigrants in those countries? And why should the United States and the Western World be concerned?
Johnson: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic union of the Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf and located on the Arabian Peninsula, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these six states are extremely wealthy, and they are the allies of the United States, Great Britain, and the Western World. Crude oil and natural gas are their main exports and the source of their great wealth.
The elite in these countries are so wealthy that they send their luxury cars to London for oil change (6,500 miles round trip).
The GCC Member States are our allies, friends of the United States and NATO. Without the military and political support of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, these nations either would cease to exist or would have to risk the strings attached to seeking aid from Russia or China. Particularly, the United States has enormous political influence among the leaders of these nations.
There are nearly fifteen million immigrants in these countries. Most of these immigrants are Muslims from Islamic countries. Even the majority of immigrants from India are Muslims, since India actually is home to more Muslims than any other nation. Of course, there are also Hindu and Christian immigrants from India, and Christian immigrants from the Philippines as well as Kenya and Ethiopia in Africa. All these immigrants to the GCC Member States are treated in an inhumane manner that no one should have to endure.
FP: What attracts so many South Asian immigrants to the Middle East? If they are treated so badly – even as fellow Muslims – why do they go there?
Johnson: Asian immigrants to the Middle East go there in hope of finding jobs unavailable at home or that pay better, so that they can support their families. Most of these Asian immigrants are either single women seeking employment as maids in wealthy Gulf State households, or men seeking jobs either in the oil industry or in construction – the latter especially in Dubai, an emirate within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), particularly in the fast-growing city of Dubai that is now such a major tourist attraction.
Whether they come from India, Pakistan, or Indonesia, these Islamic immigrant workers prefer the proximity and religious similarity of the Gulf States over more distant and possibly less welcoming destinations such as Europe or the Americas since the rise of Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. Also, many of them are young and/or have little education, so they are less qualified for acceptance as workers in Western countries.
So, while potential immigrants to the Middle East may have heard something about the conditions they’ll be facing, their own personal economic reality drives them to hope for the best and go anyway.
FP: How would you compare the lives of GCC Member State immigrants to those of immigrants to, say, the United States in recent decades?
Johnson: The United States has always been known world-wide as a “melting pot” where legal immigrants are welcomed and eventually fully assimilated into the population with full rights and privileges of citizenship. Though many come to America with little more than the clothes they are wearing, with hard work they have the opportunity to survive and thrive.
Asian immigrants to the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, however, cannot escape inferior status and oppression in working conditions, health care, residency, and legal recourse for harm done to them. They effectively become slaves to employers who consider them unworthy of any degree of decent treatment as human beings – and, thus, totally disposable. It’s actually a racial discrimination of the worst kind.
Native-born citizens of Kuwait, for example, receive so much money and other benefits from their oil-rich government that they have little or no need to work at all – particularly the women. But, since these wealthy Arab women consider staying home to tend to the house and take care of their children beneath their dignity, they require maids for such tasks. According to Arab news reports, 83 percent of Kuwaiti households have foreign maids working for them. There are more than three million foreign maids working in the GCC nations, mostly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Nepal.
They can well afford to pay these housemaids a living wage and provide decent working conditions, but in reality few do. Instead they force maids to work inhumanely exhausting hours; abuse them both verbally and physically to the point of torture; willfully delay, cut, or totally withhold their wages; and beat, rape, or even kill them.
Stories about such tragedies appear in various regional news media daily, but they usually are very brief and express neither outrage nor remorse. The perpetrators – if prosecuted at all – mostly receive little more than a fine (which is hardly a deterrent to the rich) or a brief jail sentence that is likely to be commuted early. So the abuse goes on.
FP: Don’t the countries these maids come from protest such treatment of their citizens?
Johnson: Sometimes, but with little effect. Indonesia has been the most vocal, and has for periods of time banned women from seeking work as GCC Member State housemaids while trying to negotiate better employment terms and safety assurances for them. But as soon as the travel restrictions are relaxed, the problem recurs. Indeed, Indonesia has such a ban in place right now because of the torture and murder of a maid. In response, GCC Member State employers have begun recruitment of housemaids in fresh territory – Vietnam and Cambodia – where the people are unaware of the history of this issue.
FP: What about the immigrant men?
Johnson: The GCC Member States are now home to some of the most beautiful and architecturally advanced buildings in the world, including Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, now the tallest man-made structure on Earth. This magnificent multi-use showpiece was designed by an American architectural firm, but – like nearly everything else newly built in the region – was constructed mostly by South Asian immigrant workers.
Though some of these men are young and single, many of them are married with wives and children back home that they are trying to support but will not see for months or even years. Their working conditions are so hazardous that injuries and deaths are common, but the local news media barely notice. They have to live in filthy, overcrowded labor camps and too often do not even receive the inexcusably low pay they are allotted. Certainly, they’ll never get to enjoy as visitors what they have worked so hard and risked their lives to build.
The whole present employment system for both male and female immigrant workers in GCC Member States is deeply flawed, thereby enabling the unmitigated mistreatment these people endure.
FP: Please explain.
Johnson: In order to work in a GCC Member State, a prospect must be recruited in her or his home country and pay an exorbitant fee to the recruiter, who then becomes a “agent” that finds employment for this worker (and may receive a fee from the employer as well). The worker’s fee is often so high relative to anticipated wages that paying it back could take years.
There is something called sponsorship. Essentially, you can only work for the employer that brought you into the country – no one else. If you want to seek a job elsewhere in the host country, you need to leave that country and return on a different visa.
Also, while you are working for the employer that sponsored you, the employer confiscates your passport, and does not even pay your wages on time. There are thousands of examples where employers systematically abused employees. If you are a housemaid, your employer sponsors you and then sub-leases you among his friends and neighbors for a profit.
For both men and women, eighty- to hundred-hour work weeks are fairly common.
Next, it is common practice for either the recruiter/agent or the employer to confiscate the worker’s passport. Because leaving the country – including escape back home – is absolutely forbidden without a proper passport, and because holding ANY job requires that passport, immigrant workers are effectively trapped by their current employers – no matter how negligent or even intentionally cruel they may be. They are thus enslaved to uncaring masters whose control over them is total, and they can be discarded (or worse) at any time without recourse. There are no unions or other organizations to protect workers in GCC Member States.
As a result, there have been many suicides among both housemaids and male workers besides the deaths from job hazards, disease, and brutal treatment. These tragedies receive only the briefest mention in the local news media unless they occur publicly enough to warrant a few extra paragraphs of coverage. Even then, the public response is essentially nil.
FP: Can you point us to sources for this disturbing and heart-breaking information?
Johnson: Yes. Seeing the suffering of Asian immigrant workers in GCC Member States disturbed me so much that I set up a website to gather news of these events from the whole region on a daily basis, and also present articles analyzing the issues and proposing solutions. That website is gcchumanrights.org and is dedicated to improving both working conditions for immigrants and rights of citizens in general in Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
FP: Can you give us some examples of what we might see there?
Johnson: Yes. There are about three million immigrant housemaids employed in the GCC Member States. Here are just a few stories my website collects daily from the many news media in both the GCC region and the countries these maids come from. You can go to my site to read the complete articles.
An Indonesian housemaid was pushed out of a third-floor window by her employer. She was in a coma for a week and later sent back to Jakarta without her pay.
The most frequent cause of death among immigrant housemaids in GCC Member States is “falling down from high floors” according to an attorney investigating worker grievances. Some of these women may have been driven to suicide by their horrid circumstances, but many probably were murdered. There is no respect for their lives.
An Emirati woman and her male neighbor were convicted in Abu Dhabi of stripping the woman’s Asian housemaid naked and beating her to death with a frying pan, then threatening the maid’s colleague against reporting the murder to authorities.
Three Kuwaiti men stalking a Sri Lankan housemaid waited for her to finish shopping and start walking home before jumping on her and throwing her into their car. They then drove to an empty lot behind a building and took turns in raping her despite her constant screams. The attackers have not yet been found.
In 2008, in the United Arab Emirates, a woman who was gang-raped by a group of men was imprisoned for eight months for adultery after reporting the crime to the police.
Employers or Sponsors often rape housemaids too. If a pregnancy results, they will abuse her until she miscarries, get her deported, or cause her death. If her child somehow survives, it will have no rights, no protection, no food, and no shelter.
A Saudi employer and his wife were arrested in Riyadh for torturing a Sri Lankan housemaid by hammering 18 heated nails into her arms, legs, and forehead. The nails ranged in length from one to three inches. The case is still pending.
Another Indonesian maid was tortured and so badly maimed and burned by her female Saudi employer that she became unrecognizable as the pretty 23-year-old she had been. Before and after pictures in this article would make any decent person both sick and very angry. Also, the employer, though initially sentenced to three years for her crime, was later allowed to go free.
The appeals court in Kuwait upheld the death sentence of a Kuwaiti housewife for murdering her Filipina domestic helper but commuted the punishment on her disabled husband. They had regularly beaten the maid until her health failed, then taken her to the desert where they threw her out of the car and ran over her repeatedly until she died.
Cases like these have prompted Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Kenya to ban travel by women to serve as housemaids in GCC Member States, which is why Saudi Arabia in particular is looking for fresh recruitment sources in Vietnam and Cambodia.
FP: What about the immigrant men who work in the oil fields or construction?
Johnson: They have an excessive death rate too, mostly from high falls that are rarely reported unless obvious suicides – which are a significant percentage – but also from poorly treated injuries suffered because of unnecessarily hazardous work conditions or disease from the filthy, overcrowded labor camps they are forced to live in.
In Bahrain, ten immigrant men crowded into a flat in an old house died of smoke inhalation before fire crews arrived to fight the blaze, which was caused by faulty wiring. The building had never been legally registered for labor camp use. It was supposed to be bachelor apartments.
Many of the places legally designated as labor camps have no indoor cooking equipment, no garbage collection, and no bathroom facilities at all. You can imagine how depressing it must be to live there, not even be paid the wages you were promised, and knowing you are trapped in that situation because your employer is holding your passport.
Go to my site and look at the pictures on the home page. There’s a link below that you can follow to see a description for each one.
These immigrants are not living in “slums” of their own making. They are basically slaves without choice about where they must eat, sleep, and perform their bodily functions.
FP: What do you hope to accomplish with your website, GCC Human Rights?
Johnson: We want to inform people both outside and inside the Gulf cooperation Council Member States about the extent of the immigrant oppression issue and motivate people to push for the rights that these workers deserve.
Specifically, here are some of the changes needed. You can see the complete list in detail on my website.
A. Improve the sponsorship process for immigrants, and stop confiscation of workers’ passports.
B. Stop the sale of work permits to prevent “bait and switch” tactics where workers are sent to jobs that differ from the ones they were promised, and eliminate the exorbitant fee system that enslaves immigrants to their recruiters for years.
C. Require fair wages – “equal pay for equal work” – regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion should become a right as practiced in other nations. Pay salaries uniformly according to contract – the full agreed amount in timely manner by the day, week, or month without contrived reductions, gaps, or arbitrary holdback.
D. Reverse anti-immigrant laws that absolve natives from most crimes against immigrants but severely punish immigrants for even minor infractions.
E. Freedom of Religion for all immigrants.
F. Permanent residency status and a reasonable path to citizenship for lawful immigrants who have been living in GCC countries for decades.
As you can see, these are quite reasonable expectations that are fulfilled in modern nations all over the world.
FP: Tell our readers why they should get involved.
Johnson: The Gulf Cooperation Council member states are playing a three-way game.
First, they receive hundreds of billions of dollars each year through sales of crude oil and natural gas to Europe and the United States. It is our money that is supporting the GCC countries and their elite. With that wealth, the natives – by importing cheap labor from Asia and Africa, and technology from Europe and America – are making their nations extremely modern. That’s fine, if they treat the immigrants in a reasonable way.
Most people don’t know that the immigrant population in GCC Member States actually is more than the combined population of Israel and the Palestinians.
Second, the Muslim Arab rulers and native citizens in GCC Member States treat these immigrants as slaves. There is no religious freedom. There are no women’s rights. There are no gay rights. Workers have no recourse to address grievances. Employers confiscate the passports of immigrant workers. They do not pay their meager wages – for seventeen years in one housemaid’s case, and she was confined to her employer’s house the whole time.
Third, some of the elite in GCC nations support Islamic extremists all over the world. They pay for the building of mosques and Islamic schools worldwide that teach Muslim children to hate everyone who is not a Muslim as well as hate the culture of the nation where the mosque is built. For example, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, they are building a fifty-five thousand square-foot mosque to promote Wahabi Islam – the most fundamental and intolerant variety).
Arab Muslims complain that they are being persecuted by the United States, Western Europe, Israel, and India. But, in reality, the Arab Muslim leaders and citizens of GCC nations abuse nearly twenty million Asian and African immigrants right now. They more than abuse them. In practice, they enslave them. Such abuse does not exist anywhere in the U.S. or in Europe.
This is a glaring example of the hypocrisy of Arab Islamic leaders. No nation, no civilization abuses fellow human beings more than the governments and the elite of Gulf Cooperation Council States. These abusers preach, practice, and export Wahabi Islam. But even the Quran they profess to follow forbids the kind of atrocities and murders daily in the news there.
Meanwhile, Muslim immigrants in Europe, mostly Arabs, make enormous demands on European governments and seize every opportunity to claim discrimination if they don’t get what they want. In America, the TSA will strip-search an infant or a grandmother in a wheelchair while a young male matching the characteristics of the 9-11 hijackers is allowed to walk past and board the plane so he won’t raise a “profiling” charge. At the same time, Muslim immigrant workers in Arab GCC Member States are denied the most basic human rights.
In other words, the very rights Arab immigrants in Europe loudly clamor for are systematically denied to Asian and African immigrants in the GCC Member States these Arabs come from. It’s a very clear double standard that must be corrected.
There is a solution to these issues, and Frontpage readers can help.
FP: What’s the answer, then, particularly in the Arab GCC Member States that may be our allies on paper but who really resent us behind their masks?
Johnson: We must apply the leverage we do have through careful diplomacy. Along with that, we must gently and tactfully educate the people without incurring wrath and resistance from the existing governments.
FP: What leverage do we have?
Johnson: Besides being a major customer for their oil, we have military bases there and also give or sell them military planes and other armaments to protect them from future invasions like the one from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990. Kuwait does remember that the U.S. and NATO went to war with Iraq to liberate Kuwait from Saddam’s forces, and we also provided teams and technology to put out the fierce oil-field fires that Saddam’s troops started in retaliation.
Our leverage is simply to remind them that we now know that with evolving technology there is more than enough recoverable oil in the United States to make importing oil from them unnecessary. So, if they want to maintain the flow of Western wealth they have become accustomed to, and want our continued protection that assures their countries’ stability, they need to move into the 21st Century in more ways than fancy buildings.
FP: The GCC Member States have very solidly entrenched monarchies. So, how can we educate the populace to evolve desire for change from below?
Johnson: That’s what my website is for. Today the internet is everywhere, and nearly everyone has some kind of access.
Communication is the key. Atrocities cannot be kept hidden, and good ideas cannot be kept from propagating.
But bad ideas and false information can be propagated too. There are plenty of websites of that kind also. So, good people need to support the sites that present both the truth and positive solutions for problems.
FP: How can concerned people help this cause?
Johnson: Please remember that without American military and political help these GCC societies cease to exist. They have good reason to fear Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt – all of which have battle-hardened military forces nearby, while GCC Member States have none.
Our Congress can do a whole lot. Economic sanctions contributed to the defeat of the racist, apartheid system in South Africa. There must be some form of sanctions against these countries short of overcoming their equally justified fear of the inevitable strings attached to aid from either Russia or China.
This is what you can do.
1. There nearly ten million immigrants from Indonesia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka in the United States. We must educate these immigrants. It is their fellow citizens from their native countries that are abused in the Gulf Cooperation Council Member States.
2. The rulers and elite of GCC countries are the most racist, xenophobic, hedonistic people on Earth. They export Islamic fundamentalism – and support terrorism – all over the world. Remember that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 came from Saudi Arabia, a GCC Member State which is supposed to be our ally.
3. There are 435 Representatives and 100 Senators in the United States Congress. If you educate your congressman and Senator and bring him or her to your side, the problem is solved. Remember, without the military, political, and economic support of the United States these GCC Member States crumble. We are by far their most important crude oil customer, and they know full well what would happen to their economies if we suddenly decided to use our own new-found domestic sources instead.
Write to your Congressman. It is easy cut, copy, and paste. Everything is on the website.
Send the website URL to all your Pakistani, Indonesian, Philippine, Sri Lankan, Indian, and Bangladeshi, friends, and to every human being you know who believes that men and women everywhere should have equal rights. This is not about religion – it is about basic human rights.
Pakistani, Indonesian, and Bangladeshi women are being abused in the Middle East in spite of the fact that they are Muslims. Not only Hindu and Christian immigrants are abused. Muslim Immigrants, who are actually the majority of immigrants, are abused as well.
Human rights are not negotiable; they are inarguable; they must be protected and defended.
GCC countries are not only fundamentalist and xenophobic. They also export terrorism. Only multi-cultural, diverse, democratic, pluralistic nations that respect religious, ethnic, and racial diversity can be peaceful. Those states that believe in radical and militant Islam, and practice xenophobia, are always dangerous to peace. Therefore, we in the West, particularly in the United States, have vested interest in defending the rights of immigrants in those nations.
Also, if we in the United States support the rights of third-world, starving, Muslim immigrants (which their own governments are unwilling to do), we will have created a very positive image of the United States among the Muslim masses of the world.
What I am going to do is simple. We at GCC Human Rights are going to start this grass-roots movement from Bowling Green. We will lobby Mitch McConnell (Senate minority leader), Rand Paul (junior Senator from Kentucky), and Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Also, we will write to Congressmen from Kentucky and Tennessee. You can write to your own Senator and Representative.
Also, you can start a GCC Human Rights chapter in your own state and lobby your Congressmen and Senators.
By the way, we need funds to lobby. We would like to open a lobbying office in Washington, DC. For that we would need to cover rent, utilities, office equipment and supplies, plus at least clerical staff salaries – even if the actual lobbyists are able to volunteer their time. Please use the “Donate” button on my site for that purpose, and give as generously as you can.
Remember, this is not about any one religion, nationality, ethnicity, or race. It is about basic human rights – the same ones you or your ancestors came to the United States to have.
Even if you do nothing else, please tell your friends about this interview and send them the link to read it. Ask them to then tell their friends too, and have those friends do the same. We need to spread the word virally in order to be the wheel squeaking loudly enough to get attention.
Also, please send an e-mail to your Representative and Senator. You can find their e-mail addresses and a sample message on my website.
Together, we can make a real difference in the lives of those millions of oppressed immigrant workers in Gulf Cooperation Council Member States.
FP: Mr. Johnson, thank you for joining us and we wish you the best in this valiant humanitarian effort.
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