Articles on Migrant Labor Abuses in the Gulf Don't Tell the Whole Story

Nepalese migrant workers queue to receive official documents in order to leave Nepal from the Labour department in Kathmandu
Nepalese migrant workers queue to receive official documents in order to leave Nepal from the Labour department in Kathmandu on January 27, 2014. Nearly 200 Nepali migrant workers died in Qatar in 2013, many of them from heart failure, officials said, figures that highlight the grim plight of labourers in the Gulf nation. AFP PHOTO/Prakash MATHEMA (Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past 10 days stories about migrant labor in the Gulf countries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have made headlines. The New York Times ran a piece entitled "Workers at NYUs Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions" while the New Republic and several other outlets featured articles calling for the removal of the 2022 FIFA World Cup from Qatar. The message from all of these articles was clear: EuroAmerican companies, organizations and universities should steer clear of the Middle East. The articles focused on abused male migrant workers, and the proposed solution was to pull out immediately.

The focus and timing of these articles coincide to produce a particular image of labor in the Gulf, but one that requires questioning. Let us begin with the proposed solution: divesting or pulling out altogether. The journalists make this call to both FIFA and NYU. But what if these large projects, and even other projects such as the Guggenheim and British Museum, currently going up on Saadiyat Island just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, did shut down their operations overnight? Would that end abuses to migrant labor? Likely not. What would probably happen is that some migrant workers who have mortgaged their houses and borrowed from everyone they know to pay a recruiter to migrate would be deported and return home empty handed in high debt. They would then have to seek out yet another migratory journey that would possibly be less lucrative and even more dangerous. Some men might stay on in the Gulf, illegally, and live in fear of deportation while working for little pay. The lucky ones would get transferred to another site, a hotel or corporate headquarters perhaps, and there they might be treated even worse. These proposed solutions do nothing to acknowledge the systemic nature of violence that migrants (both men and women) experience.

More disturbingly, what lurks beneath these articles, and indeed all conversations around "how bad it is over there," is a deep-seated ethnocentrism informed by a type of racialized morality. Pointing the finger at the Gulf in particular -- probably because it is an easy target in the wake of the "war on terror" -- obscures the fact that the same types of abuse take place here in our own backyard too. The (not so) subtle point made by some journalists is that the abuses are taking place because the laborers are in the Middle East and working for Arab sponsors. What the layperson doesn't realize, however, is that a middleman who is often from their own country and speaks their language actually manages most male laborers. Most of the male migrant workers I met during my 10 years of fieldwork in the Gulf had problems with their co-ethnic managers. In fact, virtually all of them said that when and if they managed to speak to their Arab kefils (or sponsors), that these higher ups were actually very vested in helping them. All of the men who were able to receive back pay or whose problems were resolved were those who managed to meet with their Arab sponsors. Contrary to what some articles would have the public believe, Emirati and Qatari citizens are, for the most part, quite concerned about labor abuses in their own country. Qataris are so concerned that they have lobbied to abolish the sponsorship system or kefala under which many migrants have been abused. Emiratis are on a similar path, and have actually made significant efforts to extend naturalization rights to the generations of migrants that have helped build their country. Let's also not forget that the highly criticized kefala system in its current form was modeled after the United States bracero or guest worker program designed in the 1940s to regulate Mexican male migrant labor.

What is perhaps most interesting about the recent series of articles is that they all focus on men. These men have experienced force, fraud and coercion -- the definition of human trafficking. Yet the term "trafficking" is never once seen in any of these articles. This is surprising not only because the men are actually experiencing trafficking, but also because the media usually love to ride the moral panic that is "trafficking" -- especially when it comes to sporting events. Panic about "trafficked women" colored anxieties about the previous World Cup events in South Africa and Germany, and has even extended to the Super Bowl. But the term isn't used, precisely because there are men involved, and the media would have you believe that human trafficking is something affecting only "women and girls." Even though the trafficking framework, which is not without its flaws, might be a way to extend rights to these men, no one even mentions it.

So instead of focusing the conversation on how to get out of the Middle East, and how horrible things are for the men "over there," it might more productive to reframe the question. Perhaps instead of asking how can we get out, we could instead ask more interesting questions such as, "What is happening in the world today that migrants have to take such risks and endure so much abuse just to support their families back home?" Or better yet, "How can we help make the process of migrant labor safer and support in-country efforts to strengthen labor laws?" Maybe we could begin by funneling some of the millions of dollars that is currently spent on anti-trafficking campaigns to inspire moral panic to programs that would increase labor inspectors and create safer avenues for migration. That would be a good place to start.