Modern Slavery

by Josephine Bacon
August 1, 2016

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph on July 31, Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, stated, “Last year I introduced the world-leading Modern Slavery Act to send the strongest possible signal that victims were not alone and that those responsible for this vile exploitation would face justice”. Yet these campaigns to tackle modern slavery carefully overlook the countries in the Arab world in which slave-ownership is permitted by the legislation.

In 2015, the Modern Slavery Act came into British law to address heightened levels of human trafficking (now considered by criminals to be more lucrative than drug-smuggling) and the treatment of many of the servants of wealthy foreigners.

Like their wealthy employers, these indentured servants are shepherded straight from an incoming flight to a car waiting on the tarmac, and do not pass through immigration or customs. They are not treated like the rest of us — the supremely wealthy and their employees live under different laws. As such, cases of servant mistreatment rarely get to be heard in court. The few cases that go to trial are the result of these servants escaping the clutches of their “employers,” and the stories they tell are horrific (albeit largely unpunished and unreported for political reasons).

One example was documented in the Daily Mail on March 15, 2011. An African servant was forced to sleep on the floor, a situation she endured at first for £10 a month “wages” until her employer, a female doctor of Asian origin, decided not to pay her anything at all.

A court interpreter in the UK, who works in Arabic and asked to remain anonymous, has told me even worse stories about escaping “servants” who managed to report to a police station, where she got to meet them and interpreted for them. The employers, mostly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, are rarely prosecuted.

Bribery by Qatar

As the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaches, it is worth investigating the labour practices of the host country, Qatar, which are certainly in breach of even previous European legislation, let alone the Modern Slavery Act. According to Greg Dyke, former Chairman of the British Football Association (BFA), and other BFA officials, Qatar offered bribes to FIFA to be able to host the event.

Qatar, like Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (the Gulf States) operates under the kafala (or kefala) system (Arabic: نظام الكفالة niẓām al-kafāla). This translates from Arabic as “sponsorship system,” but is in fact a brutal way of controlling the foreign workforce that provides virtually all of the labour in the wealthiest countries of the Arab world.

The Evils of Kafala

Under the kafala system, any foreigner seeking or being offered employment in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States, including Bahrain, the Emirates and Qatar, has to have a “sponsor” (an employer, agency, or middleman through whom they were offered the job) who arranges their visa. In return, each foreign worker’s passport is confiscated by the employer or agency. This means that the employee has no right to change jobs or leave the country without the permission of the person holding his/her passport. Needless to say, employers and agents rarely give such permission.

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