The Other Face of Burj al Arab
For several years now the issue of Bangladeshi workers in the Gulf Area and in Malaysia has been in the news. The legality of their entry or stay, in some cases, the level and regularity of the compensations received by them, the nature of their employment and the freedom of visit back to Bangladesh have been the primary matters of concern. We have heard about the recent demonstrations undertaken in the Gulf region by some of these ill-paid and ill-treated employees along with others from other countries. Thousands have been arrested and hundreds have already been deported. Sometimes, the demonstration has turned violent. There are also reports of crimes, murder, and even, gambling and prostitution. That is not to say that the Kuwaitis do not engage in some of these activities themselves. It is, however, difficult to imagine how the negative civic issues among the Bangladeshis in Kuwait could spill over to the Kuwaitis since each group lives such an insularly separated life.
But Bangladeshis are not the only workers there. Pakistanis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Indians, Philippinos and Palestinians, among others, abound in the service and construction sectors across the Khaleej. All are subject to some form or other of discrimination and exploitation. At one point, an unusual number of construction related deaths were being reported of such workers. Some of the Bangladeshis appear to be holding the lowest of the lowest jobs.
In 2000, following Umrah, toward the end of Ramadan on Yaum al Jumu'ah, I was in Jeddah with my family. In a fenced off plot next to the closed Bangladesh Embassy, I saw a startling sight. There were over 50 single beds laid out on the ground, below the hot, corrugated tin roof. This was the residential quarter of a group of Bangladeshis working in Jeddah. I was wondering why these workers would come so far away from home and live as badly if not worse.
Allegation and Analysis
According to an August 7 report in the Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, the Wael Al Nufis Trading Company cleared two months of arrear wages for its "2500 cleaning workers and 500 laundry workers, having increased their wages to 40 Kuwaiti Diners (KD) per month from 18 KD (KD 1=Tk. 258.)" The earlier sum was equal to US$ 68 or Tk. 4,644. This amount is perhaps Tk. 1,000 (US$ 13.50) over the monthly wage earned by a rickshaw puller in Dhaka, capital of a country with $1,400 annual per capita PPP income. In other words, this was equal to US $ 828 annually. The same Daily Star report states that according to Bangladeshi Embassy Labor Counselor in Kuwait City, Shahriar Siddiky,"The workers allege that in addition to low wages and irregular payment, the company deducted amounts for insurance from their salaries, charged them extra for handing over passports before workers' vacation and also forced them to buy air tickets from a particular travel agency at high cost." He also said that some workers alleged that they had not been given any vacations for 8 to 10 years.
With the rise in the cost of living, the Bangladeshi men are basically living hand-to-mouth. While the ordinary workers of Kuwaiti origin, according to some report, have been given two wage hikes this year, these workers were denied any concession. And this in spite of the fact that the average annual income of the 2.6 m Kuwaitis in 2008 is expected to be US$ 54,000 vs. US$ 46,000 for the US [www.indexmundi.com]. Thus, the 200,000 Bangladeshis reported to be living there are earning about $163 m annually or 0.12 % of $140.40 b of Kuwait's forecasted 2008 GDP. In other words, as a rough calculation, it is about 1/20th of the 2.5% of zakah (US$ 3.50 b) to be owed by Kuwait for 2008! This is a huge underestimation because zakah is based on assets owned over one year and not on current income as has been used in this exercise. Yet the Bangladeshis constitute about 3.0% of Kuwait's total population.
Now, a return trip between Kuwait and Bangladesh costs at least $500. Before the recent almost doubling of prices in Bangladesh, per person daily poverty level expenses stood at US$ 1. In 2008, for the US, the daily poverty level expense for one person under the age of 65 years was US$ 28.50. Even if the price level in Kuwait was 1/10th that of the US, the daily poverty level expense there is US$ 2.85, which is more than the US $2.23 the Wael employees received daily until the recent wage hike to US$151.20 monthly or US$ 4.96 daily. In fact, in 2003, the monthly cost of living in Kuwait, without alcohol, for a single person was US$ 2,350 [www.justlanded.com/english/Kuwait/Tools/Just-Landed-Guide/Money/Cost-of-Living]. If a cleaner or a launderer is expected to live at 1/10th or 1/15th of that standard, he has to earn US$ 235 and US$ 157, respectively. He earned only $68 before the labor strikes. He would, of course, have no insurance and would be largely expected to walk. Even in Bangladesh today, the poverty expense is at about $1.75 daily per person. So, for the Bangladeshi cleaner or launderer, at the old cost level in Bangladesh, he would need to have US$ 4.00 extra everyday to barely support a family of four back in Bangladesh. In the US, for example, the minimum hourly wage mandated by the Federal Government is $6.55. That means, working 40 hours a week for 49 weeks, a wage earner could make $12,838. In Kuwait, at $68 or $151.20 per month, working significantly more than 40 hours per week, a Bangladeshi-type worker makes a paltry sum of $816 and $1814, respectively.
So, at US$ 2.23 per day, a cleaning worker or a launderer would never have been able to save enough to pay the US$ 500 to Bangladesh and back. He would really never be able to support a family of four. He would never be able to recoup the initial investment obtained by selling much valued land or other property [US$ 3-3,500]. These employees are virtual slaves or indentured labor like those moved in by the British from Orissa to the various tea gardens all over Bangladesh and the rest of India. At KD 40 or US$ 151.20 monthly, and with airline ticket prices and price of necessities climbing by about 60-75%, things will hardly change for them. Strangely, the Bangladeshis who went to the former non-Muslim, colonizing country of UK in droves until the 1980s and who worked similar types of menial jobs have been infinitely better off legally, financially and socially.
What about Competition?
The argument that the competition for jobs in Kuwait is high is a non-argument. We are dealing with sincere, hardworking people, who have invested their life's savings or in heritance to reach Kuwait. They have come with the belief that they are going to a better place than their own homeland. They also believe that they are going among fellow Muslims and that they will be treated decently and fairly. They are vulnerable. The competition argument cannot override their basic need argument nor can it override the fact that Kuwait is substantially wealthy. Also, it is not true that the labor market is competitive. Workers may enter Kuwait, but they cannot leave. They cannot leave not because somebody is holding them back, but because they are denied a level of earning that could provide them with reasonable savings to manage the air fare. It is also a fact that the passports are not made easily accessible to these workers. Even under competition, there is a concept called compensating differential, that is, sums paid for unusual aspects of the work - being away from home, in a war, working in a dangerous situation or during unearthly hours, etc. It does not appear to apply to these poor souls.
Victims of Initial Subversion
One senses that right from the beginning these individuals have been exploited, their efforts subverted, while still on the soil of Bangladesh by those finding them employment. They spend hundreds of thousands of takas to find a job overseas and they have very little to show for it for years. These individuals go from a very restive population, living close to the brink of chaos. They have seen upheavals. They are quite familiar with the political process of mass resistance. The Gulf population's experience is quite opposite. So, when such a foreign component uses the leverage of its numbers to project its grievance in this manner, it not only drives fear into the local population, it also indirectly teaches them how to mount a resistance against the establishment. Some of their political leaders have also expressed concern that such demonstrations soil their nation's reputation! Furthermore, it is not clear that those advocating expelling the Bangladeshis are themselves not part of the exploitation mechanism.
Lacking Adequate Orientation
Now, when such employees are put aboard aircrafts in Dhaka, they are like fish out of water. From personal experience I know this for a fact that they have never seen a fork or held a knife. They have no idea what a slice of cheese is and what to do with the salad dressing. They do not know how to open napkin bags, what to do with napkins, or how to handle butter and bun. Clearly, we can forget about their knowing the use of toilets! Whenever a plane arrives, some of these men rush from the back to the front eventually trying to squeeze through the crowd, their uneducated, mob mentality in times of receiving relief distribution quite transparent.
This neglected and exploited humanity is given hardly any formal orientation about where it is going. Geography, government, people, culture, public services, rudimentary notions about the language, and even about the specific job they are headed for are things left best in the dark for them. Thus, they are essentially told to trust, not to worry and to know that everything will be OK. Hence, the only thing they are actually relying upon is their faith and the original audacity and courage which made them get a job abroad.
Missing the Muslim Link
Bangladesh's connection with the Khaleej is on religious and cultural grounds. So, one needs to use that front also to plead for 'afu and abeyance. The month of Ramadan is around the corner, would the Kuwaitis not reconsider?
In Islam, keeping young men (as many of these workers are) unmarried for a long time is unwise and unfair. Also, keeping families separated for unwarranted length of time owing to exploitation is a sin and a crime. I have a second cousin whose husband has been missing under such circumstance for about six years now. We also had a domestic help in Bangladesh, a single mother, whose only child has completely disappeared for over five years pursuing his quest for meaningful employment among well-to-do Muslims.
There is a global brotherhood that needs to be alerted and tapped for help. All plugs must be pulled. There is a hadith from the Prophet (sm) to ask for help when we don't know or can't do something! Bangladesh is clearly stuck. Even the ulema have to be recruited for assistance. They hold a lot of informal power. One should not ignore or underuse it. Every knowledge or skill, we pray, is for some form of ihsan, right? For only then, the knowledge or the skill becomes an ibadat.
One wonders what the ulema in the Khaleej are doing about this matter. Is either the OIC or the IDB reflecting on it? What kind of investigative reporting has Al Jazeera undertaken? Bangladesh needs to rush some of its ulema to the Khaleej to counsel the restive Bangladeshi workforce and to assure the hosts that repeat behavior will not occur and also ask them to look at their employment conditions for long run stability, mutual prosperity and fellowship. That the people of Bangladesh hold the Khaleej states in high brotherly esteem needs to be reiterated in unequivocal terms. At the highest level, the Imam of Baitul Mukarram could be recruited, if possible, to lead a high powered delegation there. Just because the ulema in Bangladesh or Kuwait have been silent on such matters does not mean that the PR activity should not be inclusive. One must do everything possible to break the vicious cycle of exploitation, complicity and silence. But since the circle of the elite Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry staff does not intersect the circle of Islamic leaders of Bangladesh, it is a hard proposition for fruition. Such a delegation would probably receive more sympathy and respect, and the emotional impact on the workers could be substantial.
- Shafi A. Khaled is a Bangladeshi-American from Minnesota. He practices doing research in and teaching Business & Economics.
Topics: Bangladesh, Kuwait
Brother Shafi Khaled, thank you very much for informing the public, may Allah bless you for the work you are doing as well as Islamicity for publishing this important article. May Allah help these guest workers, amin
This was a great article. I really did enjoy reading this. I am not surprised that Kuwait treats these people as if they are slaves. The author states that the people from Banghladese think of these Kuwaitis as brothers. The problem is, the Kuwaitis think only of them as slaves. I personally have seen documentaries here in Canada on this very subject. According to the documentary, Kuwait was cited for having bad working conditions for the Indians. Unfortunately, the criticizing did not come from the OIC.
The author states that Ramadan is right around the corner. Well, there have been plenty of Ramadans and the Kuwaitis have not changed yet. Why would they change now? The Gulf nations have become greedy and worse than the Western countries in lots of ways. The Prophet (pbuh) stated, want for your brother what you would want for yourself. If these so called Muslims were practicing Islam they sure wouldn't be exploting people, and treating them as nothing but slaves. Kuwait needs to be ashamed of themselves. Keeping men away from their families and making it impossible for them to even travel back home. And even worse, they make it hard for them to even get married!
Then we Muslims wonder why people talk about us the way that they do. Also, they wonder why Muslims are being attacked. Whenever it comes down to practicing Islam, I will live in the West any day before I would live in these so called Muslim countries.
Thanks Islamicity for this nice article. It is really something to think about. May we treat one another well and respect eachother as our last Prophet (pbuh)did. No matter what the race or nationality might be.
How bad and pathetic is the situation of our fellow Muslims in the country of their co-religionists!! Appalling is the case that the hearts of their employers have dried of all wetness and Allah SWT has taken away mercy from their hearts. Their hearts have become like hard rocks, or even worse; greed and desire for this world have occupied their hearts. Hence their animal-like behavior should not be a surprise to a believer.
The possible way out is to seek justice internationally; explore all possible avenues that can pressurize these Sheikhs and their buddies. Let an international web alert/awareness campaign be initiated on behalf of these poor Mazlooms, in association with justice loving people of the world-Muslims and others. A Muslim is required to stand against all forms of injustices, this is a great act of Ibadah. A humble start can bring big results eventually, Insha Allah.