L'Humanité in English
Translation of selective papers from the french daily newspaper l'Humanité
decorHome > World > Kafala, or How the Wage-earners Become the Slaves of Their Company

EditorialWorldPoliticsEconomySocietyCultureScience & TechnologySportInternational Communist and Labor Press"Tribune libre"Comment and OpinionBlogsLinks
About Slavery, read also
decorRansom, chains and servitude decorTaubira in favour of a "land ownership policy" for the descendants of slaves. decorForced labour: the gaping wound of neo-liberal globalisation decorChains Deep in the Mind decorYoung People Want to Find the Keys to Understanding” decorFollowing the Traces of Racism: “Slavery and the slave trade were midwives to the birth of capitalism.” decorSlavery: Breaking the Silence at Last decorThe End of Slavery: A Broken Promise decorSLAVE TRADE, CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY
About Olympic Games, read also
decorThe Lost Children of the Olympics decorJean-Luc Mélanchon’s Views on Tibet and China decorThe Strange Tibetan Theocratic Model decorOlympics and Human Rights : Two Struggles
About Qatar, read also
decorWorld Cup 2022: Qatar continues to exploit its migrants decorSport and Islamism, teats of the emirate decor"The emirate is reaping what it has sown"

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Kafala, ou comment les salariés deviennent esclaves de leur compagnie

by by special envoy, Pierre Barbancey

Kafala, or How the Wage-earners Become the Slaves of Their Company

Translated Tuesday 10 December 2013, by Henry Crapo

After visiting a camp for workers, Pierre Barbancey was arrested by the Doha police for "illegal practice of journalism", before being released. In this major report, he recounts how a million foreign wage-earners, modern day slaves, are exploited in the construction of the infrastructures for the 2022 World Cup of soccer. Hundreds have already died in the process. [1]

Introduction Original French version

Our special envoy Pierre Barbancey went off those paths authorised by the petro-monarchy. Arrested and interrogated for several hours by the police for "illegal practice of journalism", he here bears witness to what, as we understand, they didn’t want him to be able to see.

When the delegation from the Building and Wood Workers’ International (IBB) visited Qatar, last week [2], the first workers’ camp the authorities permitted them to visit is a center situated in the gas production zone of Ras Laffan, about an hour outside Doha. An exceptional sight, especially at night, with enormous vacillating flames emerging from the towers. Here, one speaks not of a "camp", but of a "global village". The 47,000 migrants we find there are supposed to live in peace, enjoy cricket fields and tennis courts, and a swimming pool. "Nothing must [adversely] affect their well-being, one of those responsible - a Brit - tells us. While the security personnel of the "village" are present, the workers questioned make only positive comments. When we manage to establish a distance, and to talk quietly, the realty is clearly different, with bedrooms for 8 persons or difficult access to medical care, impossibility to leave Doha, wages too low. When one is fearful, one doesn’t complain.

Human distress explodes in your face

It was clearly necessary to look elsewhere, without denying this reality. This is what I did, in the company of another French journalist and an American photographer. Far from the four-star "village" of Ras Laffan, the living conditions are truly horrifying, and promiscuity inevitable. The human distress explodes in your face, despite the dignity of these migrants, who, until then, accepted the unacceptable because they had to find a way to feed their families some thousands of kilometres away. The British daily paper The Guardian also revealed the horror of this supposedly human condition. The Qatar authorities, on several occasions, let it be known that they intended to improve the situation. Notably by increasing the number of inspectors on the work sites, by making announcements that employers should not retain passports, by announcing the possible creation of "workers’ committees", or by studying the experience of the Arab Emirates concerning the possible elimination of the "sponsorship" requirement (kafala) a veritable slave bracelet placed around the ankle of these migrants. Our inquiries can only reinforce this practice, if it is real.

Nevertheless, after having met dozens of workers, we were intercepted in a camp by private security personnel. The following morning we were discretely arrested in our hotels by Qater police in plain clothes, taken to the central commissariat, the "capital police station". We were individually presented to an investigative judge who informed us of the three charges against us: the taking of photos without the consent of those photographed, a complaint by the industrial concern that administers the camp we entered, and, finally, the illegal practice of journalism. Twelve hours later, as our liberation indicates, there was a desire on the part of the authorities not to throw oil on the fire. But the mere fact that any meeting with migrant workers is considered with suspicion, even with fear, is disturbing, and reveals a regime that is having trouble playing the democratic game.

They are more than a million, coming mainly from Asia. They are preparing, among other projects, the infrastructures for the soccer World Cup for 2022. They are caught in the trap of a system that leaves them totally at the beck and call of their bosses, and they die like animals. Original French version

He calls himself Perumal. He is 46 years of age. Like thousands of other workers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, or Sri-Lanka, they have come to Qater to sell their labor power.There, on the subcontinent, he is not able to feed his family. So, when he learned that he could find work in Qatar, with a salary permitting him to send money home, he did not hesitate for long. He borrowed money to pay the agency charged with hiring for the construction company, and he left. But his journey ended in Qatar. He died a month ago. Officially, a heart attack. His fellow workers, who speak only under the cover of anonymity, are dubious. "The day before, on the work site, he complained to the foreman of a stomach ache", one of them remembers. "He advised him to rest for one or two hours, as is often done. Then he started to work again. But the following morning, he didn’t show up." One of the drivers who brings the workers to the work site says that, that morning, when he found himself in the vehicle, Perumal said that he felt sick, that he had a fever. "Before dropping off the others, I took him to the hospital," explains the driver. "He stayed there barely a quarter hour. They gave him some pills. I took him back to the camp where they are lodged. That evening he was found dead in his bed. The emergency service came and pronounced him dead. We never heard of Perumal again."

An ordinary sort of death which, according to Qatar authorities and the construction companies, only too happy to benefit from such a work force, has nothing to do with the working conditions of the wage-earners. Nevertheless, in the different communities whose paths cross there, they never stop asking themselves. It is the case for Segur Nepal, a Nepalese social worker. According to him, the statistics at the Nepal Embassy show that, in Qatar, a Nepalese dies of a heart attack every three days. About a hundred per year. This accounts for about half of the deaths registered, the rest being shared between accidents at work, properly speaking, and accidents in traffic. In general, one counts no less than 190 deaths per year in the Nepalese community. For his part, the Indian Ambassador to Qatar lets it be known that 82 Indian workers died during the first five months of 2013 and that 1460 submitted complaints concerning working conditions For the record, between 2010 and 2012 more that 700 Indian workers died in Qatar. "In the entire world, we know that there are unfortunately accidents of construction sites. But here more than 60% of deaths are classified as due to "natural causes". No one can blame the Qatar government. But how can youngsters of 20 years of age die from heart attacks? "We must have an inquiry, but we also need my country to protect its workers.
And why do the western embassies say nothing?", insists Segur Nepal.

These deaths are not a question of chance. In the locality of Al Khor, one hour from Doha, several workers’ camps spread out, uniformly. The precarious conditions that these workers try to surmount as best they can, with the few resources at their disposal. They are piled in there, even with fifteen in two rooms, The toilets are disgusting. While the employer is supposed to use the services of a cleaning company, nothing is done. "We are not well treated", protest the residents. When they complained of lack of water in their camp, the employer replied, "You can just take water from the bathroom, and place the bottles in front of the air conditioner to cool them off".

They call themselves Salahadin, Hussein or Rajendher. Their story parallels that of Perumal. "the agency that recruited us in India told us that we would have a real work visa," they say. "In realty it’s what they call a work-business, which you have to renew every three months." Every trimester the company sends them to Doha. To make sure that the workers don’t cause them any trouble, it happens that the bosses don’t give them their residency cards, and confiscate their passports on arrival. As consequences, on their only day off, they can not leave, because, in this irregular situation, they would be arrested by the police. In addition, without this card they have no access to free care at the hospital, and must manage by themselves. "If one had the card, one could complain. But on pay day, if you were absent one day, they take back two or three days of wages, depending on which company", they denounce.

They are cheated from start to finish. "In India, the recruiting agency told me my base salary would be 1200 riyals (about 300 euros), explains Mohammed. In fact, once here, I only earned 900 riyals. The contracts they show us are in English, a language I haven’t mastered. Usually they force us to sign the papers in haste, on the edge of a table at the airport." So they didn’t see that the first three months would not be paid. Normally, they had to pay 80000 roupies (between 900 and 1200 euros) to have the right to work in Qatar. This is money they have to borrow at a prohibitive rate of 5% interest. So over and above the initial sum, they have to reimburse 4000 roupies per month.

They are victims of the evil system of "sponsorship", obligatory for working in Qatar, which makes the worker a dependent of his company, like a slave. Without the agreement of his company, he can not take a different job. And since he no longer has a passport, which has been confiscated, his return to his homeland depends upon his employer. "Normally, at the end of two years, the company must give us a plane ticket to go home. My company doesn’t want to", says Binood, a Nepalese of 30 years of age, working in a restaurant.

On site, they didn’t find the nirvana that had been predicted. "We start work at 5h30 and stop at 17h30", explains Mullesh, 22 years of age, who arrived four months ago. "But we have to get up at 3 o’clock in order to leave at 3h30, because the bus makes a tour of construction sites. We are never back until 20h or 20h30." That’s 11 hours of work, with only two paid at overtime rates, and a one hour rest period. The Qatar law requires that work be stopped between 11h and 15h in the summer, when temperatures reach 50 degrees centigrade. "in reality, they oblige us to work anyway.", emphasises Mullesh. And as if in an echo, Sagar Nepal adds, "Is it by chance that the greatest number of dead are recorded in June, July, August and September? Is it due to the heat and dehydration? You have to understand this if we are to be protected."

The fact that Qatar organises the World Cup for soccer in 2022 helps one open one’s eyes. Last week a delegation from the Building and Wood Workers’ International (IBB) visited here. These unions were already moved, more than a year ago, by a situation which, in their eyes, would only become worse with the increased flux of migrant workers toward Qatar, a country which seemed to be a permanent construction site, and which today finds itself in a frantic "World Cup spiral", even if the construction of the stadia will not start until 2014. The responsibility of the FIFA is indeed engaged [3]. But, once again, they are getting a free kick.

Will this condition of slavery continue? Is the system called "Kavala" acceptable? The migrant workers no longer accept it. It suffices to listen to what they say. But in such a situation it is not easy to revolt. Yet this is what is beginning to happen. Proof of the difficulty of the combat, on one site the workers stopped work, demanding they be paid overtime. "They replied that if we were not content, we should simply leave." said Rajiv. The result, 200 workers were sent back to their home countries. But in a camp, in Doha, last 28-29 September, the workers went on strike. "We joined together because we were impatient, not receiving our wages", explains Chumilal. "We decided we had to do something. So we didn’t go to work. And we won."

The Minister of Labor affirmed to the international delegation of unions that a workers’ committee on which 50 wage-earners sit will be put in place, and will be the embryo of future unions. He did not make clear whether migrant workers will be involved, nor whether the choice will be by election or by invitation (co-option). Meanwhile, Qatar’s Gulf News headlined, already in 2011, "Qatar will soon constitute workers’ committees." But the migrants are still parked in the camps, under surveillance. In certain places, an authorisation to enter is required, else you be arrested by the security guards, then by the police, as happened to us for a period of 12 hours.

The United Development Company (UDC), which played a key role in the development of Qatar, saw their net profits rise by 7.5% in the third trimester of 2013, in comparison with the previous year. Total, a French enterprise with colossal earnings, but which pays almost no taxes, took full page ads in the Qatar press to congratulate sheik Joaan Bin Hanad Al Thani, whose horse won the first pize of the Arc de Triomphe, a prize rebaptized the grand prix du Qatar. Perumal, an Indian worker of whom noone has heard, is dead, like a slave of modern times.

A red card for the FIFA

Union members and human rights militants held a symbolic game of soccer recently in Bruxelles, to denounce the "slavery" present in Qatar, at the work site for the World Cup, 2022. "Soccer should rhyme with social rights, otherwise we should not go there to play", claimed Claude Rolin, of the Belgian Christian Union Confederation (CSC). Accusing the FIFA of "putting pressure" on the Qatar government to further limit social rights, the International Confederation of Unions (CSI-Ituc) demands that the international management of world soccer pose conditions on the holding of the World Cup in Qatar, that workers’ rights be respected.

We must impose union freedom Original French version

Gilles Letort, federal secretary of the CGT federation for construction (FNSCBA), was one of the members of the international union delegation that traveled to Qatar.

Huma: What report can you give concerning the inquiry, carried out in Qatar by the Building and Wood Workers’ International, in which you participated?

Gilles Letort Despite the difficulties we confronted, sometimes incoherences, we can say that the experience was positive. To begin with, the confirmation of what had been said,, the terrible conditions of work and of lodging of these thousands of workers. Also, we can now say that there are, on the whole, four groups responsible for this situation. First, the state of Qatar, which lacked knowledge or capability put in place the legal disposition that would offer these workers a democratic framework, especially as concerns salaries. Second, there is the responsibility of international enterprises that abuse the system imposed by Qatar, and of which they are the first beneficiaries. To blame, also, the States and large institutions such as the UN, which, up until now, have not imposed on Qatar the fact that they must respect a minimum of human rights, and in particular, the right to form unions. Finally, the FIFA. Despite the pressure that we have exerted on them, it has never imposed social rights on the call for bids that it negotiates with governments.

Huma: What should be changed immediately?

Gilles Letort We must put an end to the system of kafala, that is, stop them from keeping control over the life of a worker by letting the employer or someone else keeping the worker from traveling or changing his job.. It is a veritable prison for them. They are hostages of the company. We must break this padlock, and at the same time make it possible for the workers to form unions. In Qatar, it is more clearly posed than elsewhere the question of the right to organise, the existence of unions and of negotiation that can organise the conditions of life, of work, of wages…

Huma: Can this effect the next international competitions?

Gilles Letort In South Africa, together with the unions, we obtained many things. It is more complicated in Brazil, without speaking of Russia, where the state of unions is catastrophic. Qatar may permit us to renew the pressure that we want to impose on the FIFA. But we must popularise the idea that all the big international events (Olympic games, universal expositions, …) we find important outfits, mobilising lots of money, but incompetent in taking into account social questions. We have to impose them.

[1These three articles appeared in l’Humanité on 14 October 2013, but were not translated at that time. We publish them in English now, the subject still being more than timely.

[2in the second week of October

[3See the web site of the IBB for their Red Card for FIFA campaign

Follow site activity RSS 2.0 | Site Map | Translators’ zone | SPIP