Gulf states, slave labour and racism

Thousands of South Asians work in the Gulf states in very poor conditions.

Rabia Khan writes that Muslims must speak out against the poor treatment of South Asian workers in the Gulf, and to address the racism that exists within our communities.

It was recently announced that Qatar would be publishing a report into allegations of severe maltreatment of Nepalese migrant workers, on their World Cup construction sites. There were already doubts from the onset over allowing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, due to its dismal migrant worker rights.  But sadly this issue has had minimal news coverage, bar the odd article from the Guardian, which has stated that working conditions amount to modern day slavery and has resulted in dozens of deaths.

The Guardian went on further to state the International Trade Union Confederation’s claims that “12 labourers will die each week unless action is taken”, which will result in 4,000 deaths over the coming years. Unfortunately this is not an exception but the norm in Gulf States. Where migrant workers from South Asia and East Asia are routinely subject to dire working conditions and where labourers and maids are treated abominably.

South Asian workers

Employing South Asia workers in the Gulf has been going on for decades, most notably since the 1970s when migrant workers went to Dubai as construction workers. These workers are assets for Gulf States, without whom luxury hotels and skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa would not exist. But as the cases of the Nepalese workers suggests, they are considered anything but assets and the same applies to the systemic way in which maids and labourers are treated in Saudi Arabia.

Recent weeks have also seen Ethiopian maids in Saudi Arabia out on the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah in protest, due to harsh working conditions, and this is in part due to the “Kafala” system of employment, which essentially gives an employer ownership over their maids, and has in turn led to a smear campaign with Ethiopian maids being labelled as “criminals” and “untrustworthy”.


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The issue here is more complex than workers’ rights. It is time that the Muslim community speaks out about these issues. We are the first to condemn any Islamophobic attacks, but how many speak out against such acts which stem from institutionalised racism within the Muslim community? How many Imams speak out about such acts? It is all to do with a deeply imbedded superiority complex found within various ethnic groups ascribing to the Islamic faith.

Many will be surprised to learn of the “Arab hierarchy” which exists, where people from countries like Yemen are considered inferior to Arabs from the Gulf States. If such a concept exists within the Arab community then the actions carried out against Nepalese and other migrant workers in the Gulf comes as no surprise.

However, the issue does not end there and it’s prevalent in other communities too. The vitriol with which Black people are referred to by the South Asian community also needs to come to an end. There is no justification for some of the filthy words or phrases used to describe people of African or Caribbean descent, yet it is the norm for many.

It is only when this “acceptable racism” in the home stops, that we can truly work towards eradicating the scenes we hear about in Qatar. Otherwise any work done on labour rights in the Gulf will only be for the purpose of saving face.


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