The glittering Gulf states' dark labor secret
Foreign workers fuel the continued rise of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, while working for low wages and in miserable conditions.
The rise of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is a now-familiar tale. Tiny societies of pearl divers, coastal merchants, and nomadic Bedouin were transformed in the last half of the 20th century by oil and natural-gas wealth. Sparkling office towers and hotels sprang into the muggy air, the monarchs that rule these tiny emirates became bywords for financial excess, and newspapers described the region's economic "miracle."Skip to next paragraph
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Now, countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are seeking to polish all that glitter, spending hundreds of millions on universities in association with the likes of Harvard and on museums with organizations like France's famed Louvre.
But as they do so, one fact about their astonishing economic success has remained largely unchanged: The vast majority of the workers who have built these states are foreigners who are often exploited, rarely protected by local laws, and frequently return home after years of work as poor as when they got here. Promises have been made in recent years to protect the migrants, but labor advocates say millions are still being abused.
"It's breathtaking hypocrisy," says Azfar Khan, with the International Labor Organization (ILO). "They flout the most basic laws protecting the rights of workers."
Tiny Qatar is just one of the examples. The leading exporter of liquid natural gas is smaller than Connecticut, but state-funded Al Jazeera News is a powerful regional voice, and Education City, built in association with Georgetown, Northwestern, and four other US universities, is seen as a beacon of progress for the Arab world.
But not far from the futuristic campus, Rajan Sapkota and many like him are working in conditions that activists liken to indentured servitude.
The young Nepali shares a room with nine of his countrymen. More than 140 Nepali laborers have died in Qatar this year, according to the Safety Awareness Center, which tracks deaths among Nepalis. And in a country where the average wage for citizens is $83,000 per year, the world's highest, according to the International Monetary Fund, he is paid about 60 cents an hour. Mr. Sapkota can't quit or leave as his boss has taken his passport. "Work here is not so good," said Sapkota, his eyes heavy-lidded after a 12-hour workday in 116-degree F. heat. "Sometimes we get tired and thirsty; it is very hot here."