KUL CHANDRA GAUTAM
It is said that some of the world’s great monuments, including the Seven Wonders of the World, like the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal of India, the Colosseum of Italy, etc were built with slave labor.
During medieval times, slavery was common, and it was considered normal for powerful emperors, rulers and merchants to use slave labor to build their palaces, temples, cathedrals and business empires.
In modern times, millions of people sentenced to hard labor in the Soviet Union’s Gulag Archipelago, a system of massive penal concentration camps, were considered state slaves. So were the detainees held in concentration camps in Nazi Germany and Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia. Even today, political prisoners and their families subjected to life-long detention and hard labor in many prison camps of North Korea are considered to be in virtual slavery.
Through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations declared freedom from slavery as an internationally recognized human right. Several ILO Conventions on abolition of forced labor and regulation of migrant laborers, widely ratified by most countries of the world, set out principles that prohibit slavery-like practices in employment.
While slavery has now been officially outlawed in all countries of the world, groups such as the Anti-Slavery International, various UN agencies and NGOs report the existence of modern forms of slavery or slavery-like practices such as forced labor, debt bondage, indentured servitude and serfdom, trafficking of women and children, and use of children in armed conflicts in many countries.
The latest allegation of modern-day slavery being practiced comes from one of the richest countries in the world, the State of Qatar, where large numbers of migrant laborers from one of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal, are reported to be abused in a high profile construction project to build the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
A recent investigative report by the British newspaper The Guardian profiles a chilling picture of thousands of migrant laborers from Nepal forced to work in inhuman conditions, without getting paid for long periods, with their passports and identity papers confiscated by their employers, with no food and even minimal medical care, leading to deaths of large numbers of otherwise healthy young adults in the prime of their life.
Harsh and slave-like working conditions for migrant laborers are found in several other countries in the Gulf region and elsewhere. But Qatar’s case is particularly striking as this small but super-rich emirate has successfully carved for itself a leadership role in world affairs. From the war to the overthrow of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi to the current campaign to oust Syria’s President Assad, Qatar has bankrolled many militant dissidents, including extremist Islamic groups.
At the United Nations, Qatar has the unusual record of nearly 100 percent success rate in winning a disproportionately large number of elective positions and hosting of international events for which it filed its candidacy in the last decade. It is widely whispered in the corridors of the UN that the main basis of Qatar’s unusual success is its “cheque-book diplomacy”.
So effective is its cheque-book diplomacy that it has prevailed in the most unlikely contests. For example, Qatar with one of the world’s worst record of carbon foot-print, defeated South Korea, a far more environmentally exemplary contestant, to host the UN climate change conference (COP 18) in 2012.
Qatar’s most dramatic and high-profile international success has been in securing the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup games. A tiny country with no illustrious record of excellence in football, being awarded the right to host the world’s largest summer-game, in the unbearably scorching heat of the summer, against far more logical contestants such as Australia, Korea, Japan and the US, was so unusual that eyebrows were raised about the wheeling and dealing that led to the outcome.
Qatar’s dazzling proposal to virtually air-condition the whole country for the World Cup— without creating any carbon foot-print—was so incredulous that many serious questions have been raised recently about the feasibility and desirability of the ‘beautiful games’ being held there in the summer, and some quiet preparations are being made to shift the games to the winter. This would massively disrupt the normal playing season of the most popular game in the world all over Europe and the Northern hemisphere for the glory of one super-rich emirate.
It appears that Qatar might finally be reaching the limits of its cheque-book diplomacy. In 2012, it suffered a humiliating defeat when the Qatari candidate was disqualified from the contest for the prestigious post of President of FIFA when the evidence of envelopes full of high value dollar bills being traded for votes spilled out in the open. And the current revelation of slave-like conditions of Nepali migrant workers indentured to build the World Cup 2022 infrastructure has been a huge embarrassment for Qatar leading to a massive damage-control campaign.
Qatar has already twisted poor Nepal’s arms to withdraw its ambassador to Doha as she was quoted to have said that all of Qatar was like an open jail for migrant workers. Admittedly, the ambassador was not very diplomatic in her tone, and she had many other flaws as a poorly chosen political appointee for a sensitive assignment. But the ease with which a rich Qatar could bully a poor Nepal, might not be applicable when independent international media, and human rights organizations spotlight a situation of modern-day slavery being practiced in a country with immense wealth aspiring to be a shining little world leader.
To be fair, it is certainly not the policy of the government of Qatar to practice or condone slave-like conditions. It is unscrupulous private companies, contractors and middle-men, both in Qatar and in Nepal, that are responsible for such inhuman practices. Despite the deplorable working conditions for many migrant workers, thousands of poor Nepalis have reason to be thankful to Qatar for offering them gainful employment, which their own government cannot do.
It is the duty of the Government of Nepal to be more vigorously proactive in promoting safe migration. But it seems unlikely that in the midst of a messy political transition, Nepal’s weak and corrupt government machinery that deals with issues of migrant labor will do much besides meekly pleading for improved working conditions. However, the rich and powerful government of Qatar could certainly take an enlightened leadership role to stop all slave-like practices taking place in its territory.
Indeed, Qatar could redeem its reputation and establish itself as a true world leader by providing an example of being a progressive and enlightened country in how it treats poor migrant laborers from South Asia who are helping build and sustain its prosperity.
For a country that is prepared to invest US $100 billion dollars for successfully hosting the World Cup, the cost of treating its migrant workers in a dignified manner consistent with international labor and human rights standards would probably be far less than $1 billion per year, much of which could be passed on to the private sector, that could easily recoup such investment from higher productivity of a happier and healthier work-force. This would be a small financial cost for a huge reputational gain for Qatar.
The UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in New York later this week offers an excellent opportunity for the international community to demand and for Qatar to present its plans to radically improve the employment conditions of migrant laborers. If backed up with provisions for independent international monitoring by organizations like ILO and FIFA, Qatar could offer a credible model that would help redeem its reputation, and encourage other countries in the Gulf, Southeast Asia, and even in Europe and other industrialized countries to follow its lead and emulate its example.
Published in Republica 3 Oct. 2013