Middle East: Oil rich Arab states are heaven for capitalists, but hell for workers

Immigrant workers forced to work without being paid for months

Thousands of immigrant workers have been turned into slaves by Arab capitalists and multi national companies ( MNCs) in the oil rich Gulf States. Millions of poor workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Egypt and other countries are working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For example in Kuwait there are 200 000 Bangladeshi immigrant workers. These workers came to these countries for a better future, but instead face a completely different situation. The Arab and multi national companies recruit thousands of workers every year from these countries through respective governments and private recruiting agencies. Starving at home because of poverty and unemployment, these desperate workers want to go to the Gulf States to earn money for their families and to improve their living standards.

Local agents and companies offered them decent wages and conditions, but once these workers have arrived their bosses openly violate contracts and promises.

There are no labour laws which can protect these workers from open workers rights violations and naked exploitations. These repressive Arab regimes are siding openly with capitalists. The situation has been deteriorating since last many years, which has increased the exploitation and repression. Big business is earning billions of dollars as profit every year on the cost of starving and impoverished immigrant workers. In the past these workers were silently facing all these horrible conditions and exploitation, but now they have started to show their anger and fight back. The events in Kuwait and UAE are of significant importance.

Bangladesh immigrant workers ransack embassy in Kuwait

More than 1000 workers employed in a cleaning company in Kuwait held a protest demonstration in front of the Bangladeshi Embassy on Sunday 24 April. They were protesting against non payment of their salaries for the last six months. The angry workers ransacked the Embassy, broke windows and computers. They were demanding the intervention of the Embassy to ensure they received their back pay. According to the police, 5000 Bangladeshi workers employed in cleaning firm have not been paid for the last six months. They are left with no money, food and facing starvation and extreme poverty. Police arrested 150 workers who were released after investigation.

According to the police “This is not the first incident of this nature. Last year 4000 angry Egyptian workers took to the streets, burnt tyres and ransacked their employer’s office. Labour unrest is on the increase in our country, which we never saw in the past. It has become very difficult for us to use state security forces against these protesters, because it can result in more wide spread unrest. The companies should take care of their workers; otherwise they will not accept slave conditions and will come out to show their anger." Three hundred and ninety two workers from Pakistan employed in a Kuwaiti company were forced to work in Iraq. When they refused to be transferred the company stopped paying them until they agreed to move. A few workers went to Iraq and three of them were kidnapped and than killed by one of the Islamic groups. The other workers brought back by the company and kept in a camp without paying them any salaries. One worker was able to make contact with his family in Pakistan, who told the story to the Pakistani media. The Pakistani government was forced to make intervention on their behalf because of the public outcry. Different Kuwaiti and foreign companies have recruited 16000 workers from Pakistan, with plans of forcefully sending them to Iraq.

The conditions of migrant workers are worst in Kuwait, a tiny country with population of only 2.7 million, but which controls one tenth of global oil reserve, and is completely dependent on immigrant workers. The Kuwaiti regime is one of the most vicious in the Gulf, and many of the rulers of these states spend millions of dollars every year to spread the Wahabi brand of Islam to the poor Muslim countries.

One Pakistani worker describe the situation in the following words “They treat us like slaves and animals. I was a great supporter of these so-called Islamic regimes, but three years work in Kuwait has forced me to change my opinion. They treat their pets better than us. My experience show me that all Muslims are not equal and also not brothers. There is clear division on the basis of rich and poor. As a student I always opposed socialism, but now I think we need ideas like that.

‘They teach us about great Islamic values in our countries but they are implementing it in their country. They spend huge amount on preaching but not paying salaries to workers."

There are hundreds of workers who want to go back to their own countries, but companies are refusing to pay their back salaries to force them to continue to work in slave wage conditions. There are no trade unions and workers’ rights do not exist. Despite the fears of arrest and deportation, workers of different countries are now coming out against this slavery, insults, injustices and super-exploitation. Small sections of the most conscious workers are now talking about the formation of illegal workers committees to defend themselves against the increased onslaught of bosses. This process is at a very early stage of development and will take sometime to overcome the difficulties and problems.

The bosses have used religious and national divisions to further divide the workers. It is important to overcome these divisions to develop strong unity amongst the workers. There is no socialist or left force which exists in the country, but if there was one in existence then it could organise these immigrant workers to become a strong political force. The movement for ‘democratic reform’ is weak and also controlled from the top. While a so-called parliament does exist, the real power in the country is around the king and his family, who holds onto power with the help of US imperialism. Women are denied the right to vote.

Labourers in UAE struggle to survive

The ten of thousands of workers, mostly from South Asia , lured by promises of jobs and better life in oil rich United Arab Emirates are suffering from inhuman conditions. As construction firms cash in on the construction boom in the Gulf’s trading and tourism hub, most workers receive meagre salaries and sometimes go without pay for months , sparking occasional protests. They live in overcrowded camps on the outskirts of towns, out of sight from the five-star hotels and luxury resorts which lure millions of tourists from around the world to Dubai. Local newspapers have reported cases of suicide by unpaid workers whose families rely on their remittances.

These immigrant workers are the foundation of a rapid development drive that has turned Dubai from a back-water desert state into a bustling metropolis with a futuristic skyline. Dubai and UAE is a dream land for millions of young people in South Asia. They come to this desert state for a better life and future. But they face super exploitation and slave wages. They work without wages for months. The situation is worst in the construction industry which employs the largest numbers of workers. Most of these workers take loans to come to UAE, which they have to repay from the money they will earn here. They cannot go back without sending the money back home to repay the loan. They work for 200to 300 dirhams per month, which is not enough for them to live on. They live in shacks made up of rows of cement blocks with balconies are draped with laundry. On average each housing unit is shared by 12 men, in which they sleep in shifts. The workers say power and water supplies are erratic. They work in very unsafe and dangerous conditions. There are no safety measures or facilities. The non-payment of wages has become so common that even the government has been forced to intervene, after workers started demonstrations to force the employers to pay salaries.

The government Labour Ministry figures show an increase in workers’ struggles. According to these figures workers in 24 different companies staged demonstrations and walkouts in the last 16 months. As well as withholding salaries in order to repay loans, the bosses also stop paying wages between the each building job. According to the ILO regional office in Lebanon, " The UAE is in process of making new Labour laws to allow the workers to form unions. We are helping the government to amend the labour laws." These amendments are not being proposed because of a sudden change of heart by the bosses but in order to qualify for a proposed free trade agreement with foreign companies who are scared of the effect of the bad publicity surrounding such barbaric practises.

The ILO office also said that "the country needs to revise its sponsorship system and ensure new regulations are implemented. Gulf countries should look into issues of wages and social and health protection. Workers should be part of a system where their rights are protected. We want to warn all the Gulf states that they should realize the situation and act accordingly, otherwise they will have to face a workers backlash , which we are trying to avoid. We think the situation is more explosive than the governments realise. If conditions continue like this they will not be able to control the situation very long and there will be more workers’ protests." Two years ago workers showed their strength when Pakistani and Indian workers employed in a construction company went on strike for three days; they occupied the construction site and forced the company to accept their demands. In this struggle workers showed their strength and ability to overcome divisions on the basis of religion, nationality and language.

Immigrant workers have had their dreams of a better life and future destroyed. One 37 year old Egyptian worker, Abdul-Aziz Taha said "My hopes of a better life have been crushed. We came here to make a living but instead we are in ruins." A Pakistani worker Hamid, commented “We toil in scorching heat and high humidity for most of the year. It is very tough to work in this heat, and many workers faint during the work. I am here for nine years and will not be able to go back to my country for many more." One Nepalese worker said “I paid 5000 dirham to come hear. The agent promised good facilities and wages but he lied and destroyed my life." An Indian worker describe the situation in these words "I came here fifteen years ago to earn money for my family, but I failed to earn this money and am still living in this hell."

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