Modern slavery, the ugly side of the beautiful game

Posted by Matthew Schofield on October 3, 2013 

Kafala too easily abused

— In a bit, I will get around to telling you how I was once, very briefly, a slave in Kuwait.

But we’ll get to Kuwait after a side trip to Qatar, or more accurately a wonderful piece of journalism about that Gulf State: The Guardian’s investigation exposing how the Qatar building boom preceding its 2022 hosting of the World Cup is relying on modern slave labor. The stories show that in two months this summer, 40 such workers died, and with the number of laborers set to increase in coming years, without a change in practice the number of deaths is expected to rise to as many as 4,000 (almost twice the number of Americans who have died in the war in Afghanistan).

The Guardian stories detail how poor Nepalese and other desperate people are being tricked into taking construction work by “employment agents” who charge far more than a job is worth, and then actually deliver jobs that are not nearly as good as the ones promised.

The workers arrive in a faraway land deep in debt, and then find themselves subject to a sponsorship system called Kafala, which ties them to whoever it is who actually employed them in the first place.  Under the Kafala System, the sponsored cannot leave the country, take a better paying job or even escape an abusive situation without the approval of the sponsor. 

The meaning of this is simple: The workers live and work at the whim of their employer. The employers abuse this power by withholding pay, providing abysmal living conditions and confiscating passports while failing to issue permits that make it legal for their workers to walk around Qatar outside of their job site. The Qatari government makes it clear those who do such things are abusing labor regulations.

But court rulings through the years make it fairly clear that in the nations who abide by The Kafala System even abusive employers tend to be backed up by legal decisions. In one case, a judge noted that a maid who was seeking a better job was clearly part of a trend of domestic workers seeking riches elsewhere, and thereby abusing their employers.

It’s not only the powerless who get caught in this web.

A website dedicated to Detroit businessman Nasser Beydoun notes that he was held in Qatar against his will because of The Kafala System. He’d signed on with a group of Qatar investors to lead an effort to open theme restaurants in the region. But that meant they were his sponsors. When the business soured with the financial crash, he decided to return to the United States. His sponsors were angry and refused to release him.

He maintains it took him 22 months to escape.

And it’s clearly not limited to Qatar. There are, of course, much better examples than mine. Still, this is mine:

I arrived in Kuwait in February, 2003, to cover the American invasion of Iraq. I arrived on a two week visa, but more than two weeks passed before the invasion, so having become acquainted with a couple Kuwaiti officials I asked if there were any sort of longer term visa, one which would cover me for up to half a year, just in case the invasion lasted longer than expected.

What I got was a sort of residence permit. I figured at any rate, I was covered.

I have to admit, I’m not exactly sure when I returned to Kuwait by military transport. I think it was in May. But when I showed up at the airport with two other journalists, at least one of whom had an expired Kuwaiti visa, they passed through without issue. But I was stopped.

Kuwaiti passport control at the Kuwait City airport pointed out that my visa was good for several more months. I suggested this was a good thing, as it had not expired. But he wanted to know if I had approval from my sponsor?

I didn’t. In fact, I had no idea what he was talking about.

So I was escorted to a holding cell. I was, under Kafala, an illegal, which means, essentially, a runaway laborer who has no real say in when he leaves, or what he does. As the Guardian points out, Kafala makes it very easy to turn workers (or journalists) into modern day slaves.

I fully admit that my stay in the Kuwaiti holding cell was hardly hard time. It wasn’t comfy, but it lasted perhaps 90 minutes. But few who run afoul of Kafala can use a quick phone call to get in touch with high ranking government types who take their side, and order the release be quick. 

As the Guardian points out, many, many people aren’t nearly so lucky.


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