South Asia meets Latin America: The Faces of Migrant Workers

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Oct 8 2014

By Mena el-Turky

Updated 10/14/2014

After visiting the Arab Gulf for the first time, I was utterly shocked by what I witnessed. Everywhere I looked, I saw South Asian and East Asian workers either working outdoors in excessive heat, or domestic workers being mistreated by their employer’s. I heard constantly heard distressing and discriminatory remarks about this population from countless natives, and often heard people claim “they (migrant workers) are better off here.”

Honestly, I felt as though I had traveled back in time to a place where overt slavery still existed and was acceptable. Although I thought myself to be a worldly individual, I was actually quite naïve. Even with my major criticisms of the treatment of minorities in the U.S., I thought the U.S. had abolished this type of labor practice. Unsurprisingly, I was completely incorrect.

Hidden in North Carolina, migrant farm workers, like South Asian workers in Qatar, are living in labor camps, being underpaid, overworked, and living in abusive conditions. Latino farm workers reported being consistently paid under minimum wage, there are several reports of child labor, excessive exposure to pesticides, workers suffering from green tobacco sickness and workers having limited access to water which was often dirty and hot when available. On average more than one farm worker dies on the job every day in the United States. Furthermore, since 1997 over 1,000 migrant workers have been liberated from forced labor.

The cost of becoming a migrant seasonal worker or an undocumented immigrant worker in the United States is quite high. Although, legally, the visa costs, transportation, and housing are to be taken care of by the employer, in many cases the workers bear the expenses. In a report by the Center for Migrant Rights (CDM), over 58% of workers surveyed reported paying a recruitment fee which was typically $590 and rarely received reimbursement for travel, visa, and recruitment costs. It was also reported that 1 in 10 workers paid a recruiter for a job that did not exist.  To cover these costs, several workers take out loans with high interest rates, this often results in cases of forced labor, indentured servitude and human trafficking. Nearly half the workers surveyed by CDM reported borrowing money to cover recruitment costs.

This story is not specific to Latin Americans working in the U.S., but reflects the story of South Asian migrant workers in the Arab Gulf.  In Qatar, migrant workers building the site for the World Cup 2022 are forced to work in 50C heat, sometimes for 12 hour shifts without a break for water or food, sometimes unpaid for months, often having their passports confiscated and unable to leave the country, are denied water, and live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in labor camps.  Numerous have their Identification cards confiscated which reduces them to an undocumented immigrant, they sometimes live 12 to a room and have to beg for food because their pay has been withheld.

South Asians and Latin Americans both leave their family, homes, and countries in pursuit of a sustainable livelihood.  Both are forced into debt and exploited by recruiters, human traffickers and their employers. Both groups are greeted to their new home with discrimination, horrid working conditions, and a dark future.

What remains most alarming is that after several movements for equality in the U.S., for example, the abolishment of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement, is that this form of human rights abuse can still exist. Which leaves me wondering what the future will look like for a nation like Qatar that has seen very little social progress? Furthermore, are migrant workers, in the U.S. or Qatar, truly “better off” or is a way for nationals to feel better about ignoring the continuous physical and emotional abuse that these workers endure?

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East