Forced Labor in a New World

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DOHA, Qatar- The critically acclaimed 2013 film “Twelve Years A Slave” by Steve McQueen deals with the iniquities of the long-dead act of slavery in 19
th century United States. Slavery is an unfathomable notion in 2013. The once prominent act of forced servitude is now a long forgotten memory.

Recent claims about the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar shed a different light on the idea of forced labor in modern day society. The government is accused of allowing forced migrant labor in the construction of stadiums in preparation of the 2022 World Cup.

Laborers come from Asia and Africa in search of employment opportunities in the gulf nation. Unfair labor contracts and corporate greed have pin-pointed the lack of oversight to prevent companies from exploiting foreign migrant workers. Involuntary servitude plagues the nation. Employers routinely breach contracts with unskilled migrant laborers who lack the basic rights or social power to counter these acts.

Migrant workers are considered some of the most susceptible to forced labor practices. Major companies, such as Hyundai E&C and Qatar Petroleum, are accused of sub-contracting construction projects to companies that ignore the rights of migrant workers. Employers deprive them of wages and view the foreign workers with great disdain, with some referring to the laborers to as “the animals.”

Lack of government oversight is not the only way the political establishment can be held culpable for forced labor. The nation of Uzbekistan also relies upon the institution of forced labor. The agricultural sector of Uzbekistan, the repressed formed Soviet republic of 30 million, relies upon cotton. President Islam Karimov, in power since 1989, instituted a policy where residents of all fields of employment “volunteer” for a few weeks each year to pick cotton. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, even children, are forced to pick cotton with no monetary return.

The cotton provides large financial returns for the nation as the government forces it citizens to pick cotton and provides “farmers with free labor,” reaping a higher return as they do not pay for any labor. Culpability falls on international clothing apparel companies which routinely dealt with Uzbekistan, but under international pressure, around 136 companies have refused to purchase Uzbek cotton.

The repression of political dissidents allows the institution of forced labor to persist, with nations such as China using the crutch of crushing opposing viewpoints to arrest citizens and force them into labor camps. The labor camps provide free manpower to produce goods which are marketed for international export and sale.  A damning accusation by the international community has led to China to push for social reforms to end the practice.

Amnesty International argues change has rarely come, as many of these forced labor camps have been quietly re-branded as rehab centers, while secret detention centers, or ‘black jails,’ have become more prevalent. These labor camps are seen by the Chinese government as critical to the backbone of their production market as they provide for cheap and effective means to punish dissidents while producing international market goods.

Forced labor is a omnipresent crisis, with over 21 million people affected. Women and girls make up the majority of forced labor throughout the world, with over 11.4 million females forced into sexual slavery and domestic work.  Some are trapped in labor through a ‘cycle of debt’ that causes many families to exist within forced servitude to repay the credit.

With over 800,000 smuggled across borders each year, profits are made upon the cruel nature of trafficking. Debt bondage is prevalent. Immigrants are owned by their traffickers, required to work off their debt through demeaning and illegal jobs. Violence is used to keep the laborers from trying to escape bondage.

Forced labor is not a simple issue. Governments and private sectors are both culpable in its continued existence. Unless a real effort is made, forced labor will mostly likely carry on in the near future.

Joseph Abay

Sources: New York Times, Asia & Japan Watch, The Economist, Amnesty International, International Labor Organization, New York Times
Photo: IJM

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