South Asia: Slaving in the Middle East

South Asian migrant workers (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal) have a notable contribution in the developments of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region. But the abuse and exploitation of these workers is shocking and serious issue. Migrant workers fuel the engine of the economy but they are exploited, abused, discriminated against, and rarely receive government protection.

There are numerous stories of human rights abuses. Just to give some examples:

Thousands of labors sell their belongings to go to Gulf countries for their dream job. Drishtipat reports how they are being exploited and come back with a broken heart.

Hundreds of Nepali workers in Qatar have been driven from the country for demanding better pay from their employers. United We Blog posts a shocking firsthand experience of a young Nepali student returning from America. He describes the inhuman treatment he received in Bahrain International airport because he protested the mistreatment of the deported Nepalis by the Gulf Airlines staffers.

In Kuwait, almost 60% of its 3 million population are migrant workers. Expositions of Arabia Blog chats with an Indian worker in Kuwait who claims he is underpaid.

In United Arab Emirates guest workers make up 85% of its population (reports IHT). Here people from the subcontinent earns about $1 an hour working in scorching 43 degrees heat. Their contracts are critiqued as servitude. While there are hotel rooms that rent for $1000 a night for the prosperous people, these migrant workers rise before dawn in guarded camps like an army base, work for six days a week at guarded sites. There are thousands of heat exhaustion cases of workers each month in one medical facility alone. The Government is under pressure to improve the working conditions and crack downs on Employers who does not pay them.

Human rights watch also has a report on abuse of workers in UAE titled “Building Towers, Cheating Workers“.

Non-Saudis make up 35 percent of Saudi Arabia's labor force. An estimated 2 million workers are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Human rights Watch publishes a 135 page report “Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia“, which depicts how many of the immigrant workers are abused and treated as slaves.

Some of the frightening and troubling findings of the reports are:

* Sexual abuse and rape of women migrant workers, both in the workplace and in Saudi prisons by Saudi male employers.
* Migrant workers from Bangladesh, India and Phillipines were forced to work ten to eighteen hours a day, and sometimes throughout the night without overtime pay.
* The pay is very meager (e.g. $133 for a month and 16 hours of work daily)
* Hundreds of low-paid Asian women who cleaned hospitals in Jeddah worked twelve-hour days, without food or a break, and were confined to locked dormitories during their time off.
* Migrant workers experienced shocking treatment in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system.

Abdol Moghset Bani Kamal writes in Countercurrents that Migrant Workers are the slaves of the Twenty-First Century. He highlights on the plight of Pakistani workers in the Middle East region especially Saudi Arabia.

Unheard Voices: Drishtipat Blog asks:

What we, the average citizens, can do about this? The issue of the migrant workers has been unaddressed for a long time. Documentaries have been made, HRW reports have been published but nothing much has changed.

The Human rights blog suggests ways to protect Bangladeshi migrant workers.

What are the locals of the Gulf region are thinking about this issue? Bahraini Blogger Esra'a raises some questions in a post in Mid East Youth:

What baffles me the most is that we simply don’t really understand that if it wasn’t for these migrant workers, we will be … well, nothing, right? Who else do we expect to do our work for us? Who else is constructing? Who else is cleaning our toilets? Who else do we take our anger on when we’re feeling miserable? Who do we laugh at and ridicule? They are extremely hard working, and if anything we should only feel thankful towards them. Instead we abuse them, discriminate against them, imprison them, and to top it all off we make infamous jokes where the words “Sri Lankan” and “Indian” are synonymous with “stupid” and “valueless.”


  • Thanks Rezwan for this article. Awareness is important if we are to try and find solutions for this modern day human tragedy.

    Well done Esra’a for taking it upon yourself to expose some of the exploitation some of the ‘Third World’ expat workers in the region face.

    But then again what are the governments of those countries the workers come from are doing to protect their citizens? Where are the international labour agreements?

  • I think the Indian government is just waking up to the issue, despite promises by the earlier PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to look after the welfare of the Indian expat worker in the Middle East.

    Last year a labor agreement was signed with the UAE and this year New Delhi has been working on having a model labor agreement that could be entered into with all countries that import Indian labor.

    Vayalar Ravi, the minister of overseas Indian affairs, announced on April 1 (I hope he was not fooling the people!) that the government is on the verge of signing labor agreements with Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman.

  • Mee Too

    Well,I would blame the countries who send their workers to work in markets such as these. If their governments are strong then they will insist for minimum wages to be imposed and also the self respect of these poor laboures are maintained.

  • A couple of months ago Bangladesh and The United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed an MOU for ensuring better working condition and protecting rights and interest of Bangladesh migrant workers in the gulf state. I am not sure what effect it will have on the situation.

    The root of the problem is elsewhere. Will give you an example. Most of the physical laborers from Bangladesh are from rural areas are basically less-educated, they can barely understand English let alone Arabic. They are exploited by the recruiting agents (based in Gulf states) who charges the firms $1000 a month and pays the labors as low as $100 a month. The poor guys probably sign on the $1000 voucher. So I am not sure how the Govts. or the local law enforcing agencies can do much about it.

    I guess more awareness of the situation and raising issues of corporate social responsibility and better working conditions to all the companies of manufacturing, infrastructure and service industries of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region can make some difference. A large movement involving all the South Asian countries in particular is required.

  • nanheyangrouchuan

    Is it plausible that with unemployment problems, growing gender imbalances and depressed economies (except India), many S. Asian nations see their men going abroad to work (regardless of the conditions) as a solution to domestic pressures? And the remittances those abroad do send home are just an added bonus.

  • […] South Asia: Slaving in the Middle EastSouth Asian migrant workers have a notable contribution in the developments of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region. […]

  • […] حقوق الانسان العالمية للمعاملة القاسية التي ينالها عمال جنوب أسيا في الخليج, لايعرف الكثير من الناس خارج المالديفز عما يحصل لعمال […]

  • Saudi employer

    all of you has to be honest , and say the truth .
    why don`t you talk about the crimes made of bangla and asian workers in GCC countries?
    why don`t you talk about the billions of dollars which transfered monthly from saudi arabia and Gcc countries by these asian workers? (researches of central banks )
    in average , most of these workers you r talking about earn more than $25 daily which is more than thier monthly income in thier home don`t ask me how because every body know how .


  • Dear Sir,

    Today I’m here to highlight some real fact about the new labour law which Saudi government under the leadership of custodian of two holy mosques, HRH king and the prime minister Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, which is reformed to safe guard the welfare of guest workers is nothing but all lies that Saudi government is saying to pleased international humanitarian orgainzations and it’s Gulf cooperation Council counterparts. There is actually no action plan or any step taken to improve any of the guest workers welfare and benefit. Everything they have written and planned is true lies of Saudi government itself as there is no such things really exists in there. As most of the company is owned by Royals itself and they are not bound by these new law. Then How possibly it will be ruled out to these companies who are exploiting workers in their commands. They are biggest exploitors amongs other Arab nation when it comes to labour law. I challenge their leadership if this statement is wrong then I have proof of it. They cannot hide their lies with their wealth forever. Saudi Arabia is the land of sacred and holy places of muslims which I respect myself but what about the Saudi wealthy businessmen and some Royals family they too respect the value of their land and others sentiments? I heard always before in Saudi Arabia Be merciful and Allah be merciful at you. But what about those who is not merciful to others are they deserve same fate from Allah or not? Am I to be shame for telling this to world or them? All you could tell me please.

    Paul Rai

  • […] has anything changed? Last August Global Voices reported on the situation in the Persian Gulf as it affects Asian workers: South Asian migrant […]

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