As the world reflects on the historical effects of the slave trade, with statues being dethroned, most people don’t know that tens of millions are being exploited and kept in bondage today.
For my generation – born in the 1980s – slavery is something we assume exists only in textbooks.
Sadly, it doesn’t.
Nothing made that clearer than the soul-destroying footage of middle-class Lebanese families dumping their Ethiopian maids like bags of used clothes last weekend.
Their employers/owners bundle them out of a car, at their embassy, and drive off. These young women are helplessly left on the street with all their worldly possessions.
One of them said: “Madam did not find us in a dumpster, we are not garbage to be thrown out like that.”
There’s no recourse for these maids, either. They are not protected by the law, so the hours they work, the amount of holidays they get, the seizure of their passport, payment of their salary and their working conditions are at the whim of their employer/owner.
The authorities have since transferred the women to a shelter, but there have been zero prosecutions of their employers/owners.
Essentially, it’s tolerated, and laws aren’t enforced precisely for one reason: to let it happen.
This isn’t only a Lebanese issue.
2022 sees the World Cup arrive in Qatar. It’s the biggest global sporting event bar the Olympics, but no matter how much PR spin is applied, a bottle of bleach wouldn’t disinfect it.
We’ve endured years of assurances from FIFA, from Qatar’s ruling family, from whoever else, that everything is being done by the rules.
However, earlier this month Amnesty released a report, detailing the case of 100 migrant workers employed by Qatar Meta Coats to build the $850 million Al Bayt Stadium.
They worked for seven months without pay.
The ones who are being paid are making around two dollars an hour, despite the brutal desert temperatures in which they toil.
Qatar still persists with its Kafala system, which sees migrant workers shackled to their employers, thus requiring their approval for every legal procedure in the country.
The workers can’t change jobs without their permission and, according to Amnesty’s investigation, QMC haven’t renewed their work permits – so technically they are now illegal and could be deported or face fines.
Lots of workers also have to pay fees of up to $2,000 to agents in their home countries who facilitate their employment. That is a bribe to grease someone, nothing more.
It is also officially banned, but it is still widespread.
Steve Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice at Amnesty International, said: “If, over the past 10 years, FIFA had held its World Cup partners to account, and used its clout to push Qatar to fully reform its systems, we wouldn’t be hearing the same tales of workers’ suffering with only two and half years until kick-off.”
The fact that this abuse is happening in the country with the world’s highest per capita GDP only highlights how it is tolerated.
There have also been 34 reported deaths on the World Cup projects in the last six years, most of which are attributed to sudden and unexplained cardiac or respiratory failure.
Most are relatively young men – which suggests they clearly are not being treated humanely, otherwise their hearts and lungs wouldn’t cease to function.
And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg: the International Trades Union Confederation (ITUC) says approximately 1,200 workers have died since 2010 and predicts at least 4,000 worker fatalities by the time the tournament begins, a large percentage of whom are Nepalese.
The Middle East is riddled with this cancer of certain ethnicities being flown in to act as maids, cooks, drivers and labourers.
The job titles are not the problem, it’s how their rights are abused and they are deemed as lesser, not worthy of the respect afforded to others.
Part of my teenage years were spent in one of the rich states of the region, Abu Dhabi. My next door neighbour and best friend to this day had to carry a copy of his passport and visa with him at all times, in case he was asked to justify his status.
He also endured racist comments at school, predicated again on his creed being less respected than others.
I didn’t go through any of that. The reason? He’s Pakistani and I’m Scottish.
There isn’t a part of the world that’s not touched by this.
The Global Slavery Index estimates 40.3 million people are entwined in modern slavery, with the world’s worst offender being North Korea. Other countries highlighted are Libya, Iran, Burundi, Congo and Russia.
They also say the country doing the most to combat modern slavery is the UK, followed by the Netherlands and the US.
But it’s still happening in a nation that’s leading the way, apparently.
At this very moment, around 500 Indian sailors are trapped on six cruise ships docked in British waters – along with hundreds more Indonesian crew members. Port authorities have “serious concerns” about their welfare.
Unverified reports of hunger strikes are circulating as the workers are sequestered on the ships, unable to leave and detained supposedly due to Covid-19 restrictions. One ship, the Astoria, arrived in Tilbury Docks way back on March 15.
If the crew were from a different ethnic background, would they still be trapped in a floating prison three months later?
Globally renowned sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Yale University issued a public appeal in the last few days, tweeting: “I’ve been teaching, talking and tweeting about this for years, but it’s worth repeating; the ongoing existence of real slavery in the world, today, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Slavery (in various forms) is not just in the past. It should concern us all.”
Right now, there’s a period of processing the fallout of the current movement to face the bloody history of slavery.
Some are pulling down statutes or renaming buildings, due to their links to the sordid practice.
But we, more importantly, we need to tackle the injustices of today.
None of us will be truly innocent until slavery is finally eradicated.
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