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Why the Arabs practice modern-day slavery

Mid-Day logo Mid-Day 5 days ago Jane Borges
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Rejimon Kuttappan’s journalism is what countries, especially those where democracy is conspicuous by its absence, worry about. Among the handful of journalists in the Sultanate of Oman, who reported about the local protests during the Arab Spring in 2011, Kuttappan has been on the radar of authorities once too many. “I was summoned by the police four times, summoned in court thrice, kept in custody twice, and faced two cases, which ended in favour of me, between 2009 and 2017,” he shares in an email interview.

He was chief reporter for the Times of Oman, one of the oldest English dailies in the country, when he was finally deported back to India in 2017, for exposing human trafficking and modern slavery in the Arab Gulf through a front-page news story. “It was hard. Always threatening,” he says, of working in a country, where there’s little press freedom—the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Oman 135th out of 180 countries. “I had [to] hold back several migration stories, only because I couldn’t get a comment from the employer or other side even after sending repeated emails, placing several calls, and sending at least a dozen messages.”

Now an independent journalist and migrant rights defender, Kuttappan has been able to give voice to the untold tragedies behind some of these stories in his just released book, Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf (Penguin Random House, India). The work is a result of a 10-year stint as journalist in Oman, where he came in close contact with blue-collar migrant workers, while doing what he describes as “begging bowl” stories, which looked into the challenges that many of them faced, especially those living without legal documents. During this time, he enrolled in a Diplomacy Training Programme at the University of New South Wales, which gave him the tools to understand migration, workers’ rights, and human rights at a deeper level. “In the Gulf, you see and hear only success stories,” he says. He wanted to focus on the 7.5 million-odd Indians who depend on monthly wages, “working under a harsh exploitative working system called kafala”. 

Rejimon Kuttappan

The kafala system took form in the 1950s to regulate the relationship between employers and the migrant workers and continues to be practiced in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon. “Under this system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor [kafeel] throughout the contract period. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment, nor leave the country for any reason, without first obtaining an explicit written permission from the kafeel,” says Kuttappan.

Throughout this stay, the worker remains tied to the kafeel. “Often, the kafeel exerts further control over the migrant workers by confiscating their passports and travel documents, despite legislation in some countries declaring this practice illegal.” If the worker decides to leave the workplace without the employer’s written consent, he could also be charged for “absconding”. “The power that the kafala system delegates to the sponsor over the migrant worker, has been likened to a contemporary form of slavery,” he adds.

Kuttappan, who now lives in Kerala, chose to tell the stories of people, he had helped during his work stint in Oman. That many of these are about Malayalis, wasn’t deliberate, he says. “It [just] happened,” he admits, “However, exploitation faced by any blue-collar will be the same. Only the name, religion, nationality change for a migrant worker.”

The most disturbing of the stories, he says, was that of Suhsmitha, a mother of two girls, who hailed from Bihar. Her truck driver husband was bed-ridden after an accident. Desperate to make ends meet, she came in contact with an agent who duped her. “She was flown to the UAE on false promises, sheltered in brothels, trafficked to Oman by road on fake papers, confined in a mansion in Oman, sexually abused by many in the house, enslaved, and beaten up,” he says.

The amnesty policies adopted by many GCC countries, which provide an opportunity for migrant workers to leave the country without paying the fine for overstaying and thus, avert prosecution, has been seen as a generous step taken by Arab governments. However, Kuttappan says that it is just a “dubious move” by these countries to clean up the labour market. 

Despite the Gulf being brutal on the blue collar workforce, many continue to be drawn to it. “If we understand who is migrating, we will have the answer. Workers from South Asia migrate due to unemployment in their home countries. Workers from the Arab countries migrate due to war and civil unrest. Workers from Africa migrate due to poverty, unemployment, and civil unrest. When there is no means for survival, you are ready for any kind of risk. And when Arab Gulf countries with immense job opportunities have traffickers/agents to offer false promises, workers fall prey…some survive, some die.”

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