Why you should care
Because the problem of forced labor extends far beyond World Cup stadiums.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in August 2017 and dozens of people were lining up on the platform of Noor Bank metro station, in Dubai. As the train approached, a man jumped in front of it.
The police report revealed he was a 36-year-old migrant worker from Uganda. His embassy said he was likely “frustrated” by poor working conditions, a local daily wrote a few paragraphs on the case, then the news moved on.
But the suicide only punctuated a widespread new pattern of labor exploitation of thousands of African migrant workers in the Persian Gulf States. A recent report by a Ugandan parliamentary committee revealed that, in 2017, at least 35 Ugandans killed themselves in the United Arab Emirates — mostly as a result of unpaid wages and abuse.
While continued international pressure on the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has managed to improve the working conditions of many South Asian and Southeast Asian migrants, recruitment agencies are now moving on to Africa. Detailed labor statistics are hard to come by in the region, but data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs suggests that there are more than 636,000 Sudanese migrants in the Gulf, as well as up to 300,000 Kenyans. Many of the workers flooding the Persian Gulf States are from Somalia, Ethiopia or Uganda — countries with little capacity to guarantee the fair treatment of their citizens abroad.
There are several factors behind this trend, not least of which is the sky-high rate of youth unemployment in many African countries. But according to Sophia Kagan, from the International Labor Organization’s regional office for the Arab states, the main cause is growing demand. “Employers are looking for the cheapest possible labor,” she says.
Indeed, the Gulf’s demand for migrant workers seems insatiable, particularly in the sectors of construction, domestic work and hospitality. The overall number of migrant workers is increasing despite most countries’ “local first” policies, which require companies to try to fill roles locally before hiring aboard.
Even falling oil prices have not slowed down foreign recruitment. They have, though, driven many companies to look for cheaper, less organized labor. This makes Africans more employable but also more vulnerable to forced labor and human trafficking — both of which are already taking place.
Many African migrants work six to seven days a week and live isolated from the native population, either locked inside their employers’ homes or in labor camps for construction workers, located a long drive from the city. Still, the African diaspora is starting to make its presence felt. In Dubai, traditionally migrant neighborhoods featuring Indian hairdressers and Pakistani mosques are now also home to Guinean restaurants and grocery stores selling all sorts of African products, from hair extensions to dried fish.
“Every year we see more Africans coming to work here, and we want to make them feel [at] home,” says Khalid, the Nigerian manager of Africana Home restaurant.
But “home” in the Gulf often turns out to be far more exploitative for African migrants than they might have imagined when they first set out for the Middle East.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch describes how Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman were regularly “overworked, underpaid and abused behind closed doors.” And anti-trafficking nongovernmental organizations in East Africa have revealed that young women are being lured into the UAE under false promises of employment, only to be forced into prostitution.
In response, countries like Uganda and Ethiopia have issued bans on their citizens traveling to the Persian Gulf States. But this has only served to boost the irregular recruitment market, where migrants are even more vulnerable.
Of the few African nations with embassies in the Gulf, most have a small staff, often untrained in labor matters. OZY sent several requests for comment but received no response from any of them.
“We are concerned by the lack of seriousness of our government,” says Hussein Khalid, executive director of Haki Africa, a Kenyan human rights organization. “We need to have laws in place that will guarantee the safety of our migrant workers.”
Still, there is hope for improvement and the blueprint is clear. Asian nations like India, Sri Lanka or the Philippines have successfully lobbied for their citizens’ rights in recent years. African countries need only follow in their footsteps. Important interventions include providing training before departure, empowering unions to negotiate minimum wages and setting up strong bilateral agreements with the Persian Gulf States. Some African governments are already catching on: In 2016, Uganda signed a labor memorandum with Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia is negotiating its own.
To be sure, such agreements won’t stop unscrupulous recruiters from targeting increasingly vulnerable nationalities. For that, Kagan says, what’s needed is a comprehensive shift in the region’s recruitment system.
Current methods prioritize migrants willing to pay large sums of money for a chance to work abroad. The alternative, she says, should be a transparent model where migrants are hired based only on their skills, which the UAE is already considering.
After all, migration is not going to stop, and not all African migrants in the Gulf are being exploited. In the same station where the Ugandan worker killed himself, Bajhan takes the metro every day. The 24-year-old Kenyan has a bachelor’s degree in procurement and logistics and works at Starbucks. To her, the Gulf is a land of promise. “My family worries about me getting hurt,” she says, “but I really like it here. There’s more … room to grow.”