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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay Johnson, a world traveler, a professional in the Health Care business, and a human rights activist. One of his main research fields is the exploitation of immigrant workers in the Middle East – a phenomenon that he has witnessed first-hand in his travels. Visit his website, gcchumanrights.org, which is dedicated to improving working conditions for immigrants and the rights of citizens in general in Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
FP: Jay Johnson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about the exploitation of immigrant workers in the Middle East
But first, give us a bit of background about yourself and how you came to be interested in the rights of immigrant workers in the Middle East.
Johnson: Thank you Jamie for the opportunity to be interviewed in Frontpage Magazine.
I am native to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and work as a computer consultant in the Healthcare industry. For several years, I have had the opportunity to visit Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
During my travels, I found the Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans to be very hospitable people. Of course, they have had their own internal problems for a long time – India versus Pakistan, political conflicts in Sri Lanka, etc. However, when it came to outside visitors they have been quite hospitable. I found the people of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) have been very intelligent, compassionate, and honest.
During those same visits to South Asia, I also had the opportunity to visit Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. – the Gulf Cooperation Council states. There I found the condition of South Asian immigrants to be so intolerable that people in the outside world need to know about it and push their governments to exert pressure for reasonable change in that inhumane situation.
FP: What is the Gulf Cooperation Council? Why are there South Asian Immigrants in those countries? And why should the United States and the Western World be concerned?
Johnson: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic union of the Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf and located on the Arabian Peninsula, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these six states are extremely wealthy, and they are the allies of the United States, Great Britain, and the Western World. Crude oil and natural gas are their main exports and the source of their great wealth.
The elite in these countries are so wealthy that they send their luxury cars to London for oil change (6,500 miles round trip).
The GCC Member States are our allies, friends of the United States and NATO. Without the military and political support of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, these nations either would cease to exist or would have to risk the strings attached to seeking aid from Russia or China. Particularly, the United States has enormous political influence among the leaders of these nations.
There are nearly fifteen million immigrants in these countries. Most of these immigrants are Muslims from Islamic countries. Even the majority of immigrants from India are Muslims, since India actually is home to more Muslims than any other nation. Of course, there are also Hindu and Christian immigrants from India, and Christian immigrants from the Philippines as well as Kenya and Ethiopia in Africa. All these immigrants to the GCC Member States are treated in an inhumane manner that no one should have to endure.
FP: What attracts so many South Asian immigrants to the Middle East? If they are treated so badly – even as fellow Muslims – why do they go there?
Johnson: Asian immigrants to the Middle East go there in hope of finding jobs unavailable at home or that pay better, so that they can support their families. Most of these Asian immigrants are either single women seeking employment as maids in wealthy Gulf State households, or men seeking jobs either in the oil industry or in construction – the latter especially in Dubai, an emirate within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), particularly in the fast-growing city of Dubai that is now such a major tourist attraction.
Whether they come from India, Pakistan, or Indonesia, these Islamic immigrant workers prefer the proximity and religious similarity of the Gulf States over more distant and possibly less welcoming destinations such as Europe or the Americas since the rise of Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. Also, many of them are young and/or have little education, so they are less qualified for acceptance as workers in Western countries.
So, while potential immigrants to the Middle East may have heard something about the conditions they’ll be facing, their own personal economic reality drives them to hope for the best and go anyway.
FP: How would you compare the lives of GCC Member State immigrants to those of immigrants to, say, the United States in recent decades?
Johnson: The United States has always been known world-wide as a “melting pot” where legal immigrants are welcomed and eventually fully assimilated into the population with full rights and privileges of citizenship. Though many come to America with little more than the clothes they are wearing, with hard work they have the opportunity to survive and thrive.
Asian immigrants to the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, however, cannot escape inferior status and oppression in working conditions, health care, residency, and legal recourse for harm done to them. They effectively become slaves to employers who consider them unworthy of any degree of decent treatment as human beings – and, thus, totally disposable. It’s actually a racial discrimination of the worst kind.
Native-born citizens of Kuwait, for example, receive so much money and other benefits from their oil-rich government that they have little or no need to work at all – particularly the women. But, since these wealthy Arab women consider staying home to tend to the house and take care of their children beneath their dignity, they require maids for such tasks. According to Arab news reports, 83 percent of Kuwaiti households have foreign maids working for them. There are more than three million foreign maids working in the GCC nations, mostly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Nepal.
They can well afford to pay these housemaids a living wage and provide decent working conditions, but in reality few do. Instead they force maids to work inhumanely exhausting hours; abuse them both verbally and physically to the point of torture; willfully delay, cut, or totally withhold their wages; and beat, rape, or even kill them.
Stories about such tragedies appear in various regional news media daily, but they usually are very brief and express neither outrage nor remorse. The perpetrators – if prosecuted at all – mostly receive little more than a fine (which is hardly a deterrent to the rich) or a brief jail sentence that is likely to be commuted early. So the abuse goes on.
FP: Don’t the countries these maids come from protest such treatment of their citizens?
Johnson: Sometimes, but with little effect. Indonesia has been the most vocal, and has for periods of time banned women from seeking work as GCC Member State housemaids while trying to negotiate better employment terms and safety assurances for them. But as soon as the travel restrictions are relaxed, the problem recurs. Indeed, Indonesia has such a ban in place right now because of the torture and murder of a maid. In response, GCC Member State employers have begun recruitment of housemaids in fresh territory – Vietnam and Cambodia – where the people are unaware of the history of this issue.
FP: What about the immigrant men?
Johnson: The GCC Member States are now home to some of the most beautiful and architecturally advanced buildings in the world, including Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, now the tallest man-made structure on Earth. This magnificent multi-use showpiece was designed by an American architectural firm, but – like nearly everything else newly built in the region – was constructed mostly by South Asian immigrant workers.
Though some of these men are young and single, many of them are married with wives and children back home that they are trying to support but will not see for months or even years. Their working conditions are so hazardous that injuries and deaths are common, but the local news media barely notice. They have to live in filthy, overcrowded labor camps and too often do not even receive the inexcusably low pay they are allotted. Certainly, they’ll never get to enjoy as visitors what they have worked so hard and risked their lives to build.
The whole present employment system for both male and female immigrant workers in GCC Member States is deeply flawed, thereby enabling the unmitigated mistreatment these people endure.
FP: Please explain.
Johnson: In order to work in a GCC Member State, a prospect must be recruited in her or his home country and pay an exorbitant fee to the recruiter, who then becomes a “agent” that finds employment for this worker (and may receive a fee from the employer as well). The worker’s fee is often so high relative to anticipated wages that paying it back could take years.
There is something called sponsorship. Essentially, you can only work for the employer that brought you into the country – no one else. If you want to seek a job elsewhere in the host country, you need to leave that country and return on a different visa.
Also, while you are working for the employer that sponsored you, the employer confiscates your passport, and does not even pay your wages on time. There are thousands of examples where employers systematically abused employees. If you are a housemaid, your employer sponsors you and then sub-leases you among his friends and neighbors for a profit.
For both men and women, eighty- to hundred-hour work weeks are fairly common.
Next, it is common practice for either the recruiter/agent or the employer to confiscate the worker’s passport. Because leaving the country – including escape back home – is absolutely forbidden without a proper passport, and because holding ANY job requires that passport, immigrant workers are effectively trapped by their current employers – no matter how negligent or even intentionally cruel they may be. They are thus enslaved to uncaring masters whose control over them is total, and they can be discarded (or worse) at any time without recourse. There are no unions or other organizations to protect workers in GCC Member States.
As a result, there have been many suicides among both housemaids and male workers besides the deaths from job hazards, disease, and brutal treatment. These tragedies receive only the briefest mention in the local news media unless they occur publicly enough to warrant a few extra paragraphs of coverage. Even then, the public response is essentially nil.
FP: Can you point us to sources for this disturbing and heart-breaking information?
Johnson: Yes. Seeing the suffering of Asian immigrant workers in GCC Member States disturbed me so much that I set up a website to gather news of these events from the whole region on a daily basis, and also present articles analyzing the issues and proposing solutions. That website is gcchumanrights.org and is dedicated to improving both working conditions for immigrants and rights of citizens in general in Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
FP: Can you give us some examples of what we might see there?
Johnson: Yes. There are about three million immigrant housemaids employed in the GCC Member States. Here are just a few stories my website collects daily from the many news media in both the GCC region and the countries these maids come from. You can go to my site to read the complete articles.
An Indonesian housemaid was pushed out of a third-floor window by her employer. She was in a coma for a week and later sent back to Jakarta without her pay.
The most frequent cause of death among immigrant housemaids in GCC Member States is “falling down from high floors” according to an attorney investigating worker grievances. Some of these women may have been driven to suicide by their horrid circumstances, but many probably were murdered. There is no respect for their lives.
An Emirati woman and her male neighbor were convicted in Abu Dhabi of stripping the woman’s Asian housemaid naked and beating her to death with a frying pan, then threatening the maid’s colleague against reporting the murder to authorities.
Three Kuwaiti men stalking a Sri Lankan housemaid waited for her to finish shopping and start walking home before jumping on her and throwing her into their car. They then drove to an empty lot behind a building and took turns in raping her despite her constant screams. The attackers have not yet been found.
In 2008, in the United Arab Emirates, a woman who was gang-raped by a group of men was imprisoned for eight months for adultery after reporting the crime to the police.
Employers or Sponsors often rape housemaids too. If a pregnancy results, they will abuse her until she miscarries, get her deported, or cause her death. If her child somehow survives, it will have no rights, no protection, no food, and no shelter.
A Saudi employer and his wife were arrested in Riyadh for torturing a Sri Lankan housemaid by hammering 18 heated nails into her arms, legs, and forehead. The nails ranged in length from one to three inches. The case is still pending.
Another Indonesian maid was tortured and so badly maimed and burned by her female Saudi employer that she became unrecognizable as the pretty 23-year-old she had been. Before and after pictures in this article would make any decent person both sick and very angry. Also, the employer, though initially sentenced to three years for her crime, was later allowed to go free.
The appeals court in Kuwait upheld the death sentence of a Kuwaiti housewife for murdering her Filipina domestic helper but commuted the punishment on her disabled husband. They had regularly beaten the maid until her health failed, then taken her to the desert where they threw her out of the car and ran over her repeatedly until she died.
Cases like these have prompted Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Kenya to ban travel by women to serve as housemaids in GCC Member States, which is why Saudi Arabia in particular is looking for fresh recruitment sources in Vietnam and Cambodia.
FP: What about the immigrant men who work in the oil fields or construction?
Johnson: They have an excessive death rate too, mostly from high falls that are rarely reported unless obvious suicides – which are a significant percentage – but also from poorly treated injuries suffered because of unnecessarily hazardous work conditions or disease from the filthy, overcrowded labor camps they are forced to live in.
In Bahrain, ten immigrant men crowded into a flat in an old house died of smoke inhalation before fire crews arrived to fight the blaze, which was caused by faulty wiring. The building had never been legally registered for labor camp use. It was supposed to be bachelor apartments.
Many of the places legally designated as labor camps have no indoor cooking equipment, no garbage collection, and no bathroom facilities at all. You can imagine how depressing it must be to live there, not even be paid the wages you were promised, and knowing you are trapped in that situation because your employer is holding your passport.
Go to my site and look at the pictures on the home page. There’s a link below that you can follow to see a description for each one.
These immigrants are not living in “slums” of their own making. They are basically slaves without choice about where they must eat, sleep, and perform their bodily functions.
FP: What do you hope to accomplish with your website, GCC Human Rights?
Johnson: We want to inform people both outside and inside the Gulf cooperation Council Member States about the extent of the immigrant oppression issue and motivate people to push for the rights that these workers deserve.
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