Dr. Rekha Oleschak is senior research fellow at the Institute of Federalism, Switzerland.
“Goat Days” by Benyamin. Penguin Books, 2012. <https://www.amazon.com/Goat-Days-Benyamin-Joseph-Koyippally/dp/0143416332>
“I too have an arbab of my own. The one who walks in front of me is the custodian of all my dreams, the visible god who will fulfil all my ambitions.”
The novel ‘Goat Days’ by Benyamin is one traps you within the heat of the desert, the stench of cattle and the absolute submission of a human being to modern slavery. First published in Malayalam in 2007, translated into English by Joseph Koyipally, the novel has won laurels for its sensitivity in the portrayal of Najeeb, a migrant worker.
Najeeb’s story is not unique. Like millions of others from South Asia, Najeeb with hope in his heart and lack of perspectives in his homeland, reaches the Middle East or rather the oil rich Gulf States. In his optimism, he hopes that a stint in the desert, away from family and in a completely different environment, would enable him to make a better living, to put aside enough to build up some savings for his unborn child. Anyone acquainted with the ‘send home money’ economy would find the initial pages of this novel familiar, if not absolutely understandable. The little dreams and hopes of most Gulf Malayalis to get the sisters “married off”, to buy a fridge, TV, car, build another room, save up for rainy days, are all familiar social setting.
Najeeb’s search for his ‘saviour’, his Arbab, i.e. the Arab who would be his employer and to whom he would absolutely submit, is witty, sarcastic and hopeful. Najeeb ends up in the middle of the desert, with little water, little contact to the outside world in a system of modern slavery, tending goats, sheep and camels. The novel’s title comes from the only living beings he is close to in the years of slavery, namely goats. He gives them names, talks to them and suffers with them when it is time for slaughter.
Najeeb finally makes his escape seeking a prison, where he introduces the reader to the system of immigration detention, quite a hot topic also in the western world. His predicament is what should bother a constitutional or international lawyer! We have fundamental rights! The prohibition of slavery is one of the few jus cogens principles! In this age of transnational cooperation, of celebrating the power of human rights, how do we end up justifying such a system?
I find that there are three main issues which need to be highlighted: First, the corruption of the immigration system, which ends up being conducive to trafficking of human beings. Second, lack of rights for migrant workers in a discriminatory legal setting. Third, lack of protection by home states which leads to perpetuating the system and established status quo.
Immigration system: I spoke to friends familiar with the immigration system of the Gulf countries, which would horrify anyone who places any trust in the rule of law. The Gulf economy is completely dependent on migrant labour, be it highly paid professionals, skilled workers or unskilled workers. The oil rich Gulf States have high per capita income, which of course is a very skewed number, because most of the population consists of foreign migrant workers who are more or less surviving on a trickle down basis. Most of these migrant workers come from across South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They are recruited in their respective countries by middle agents who charge exorbitantly for their services, namely the visa. Most visas are organised by private individuals, shell companies etc. who then sell the visas through the middle agents. This system corrupts the whole immigration process, as it is clear that across the range of people from the bureaucrat issuing the visa to the person finally entering the country on that visa are involved in a system of exploitation. The employment visa is officially only for the particular employer, however, since the whole system is corrupt, the ‘official employer’ is more often than not the ‘real employer’. The system not only makes the migrant worker dependent on the whims and fancies of his sponsor, it also plainly speaking creates a system of pure modern slavery.
The second problem in this whole setting is the discriminatory legal system, one does not speak of the rule of law, or does not even pretend that it exists. Migrant workers have no rights. In all authoritarian systems in the middle east, only citizens are worthy of having rights, even if they happen to be basic fundamental rights. Migrant workers do not approach or even dare to approach courts for remedies, especially if the person on the other side happens to be a national or the country, it is clear that there will be no justice. It is with good reason that the Malayalam movie Khadamma has been banned across the Middle East (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaddama). The movie, which highlights the plight of migrant workers and the abuses they face is an eye opener for many. While there has been some criticism of the lack of rights of migrant workers involved in the construction sites on the upcoming World Cup in Qatar (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/11/17/amnesty-internationalqatarfailingtoenforceitsownlawslaborlaws.html) , there is by far little attention paid to the plight of domestic workers, who face sexual, physical, psychological attacks on a daily basis.
The third and final problem is the lack of protection extended by home countries. While countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka are coming out of conflict and are maybe not in the best position to bargain with the host countries on protection for the nationals, countries like India certainly are. The sheer numbers of Indians working in the Middle East are enough to give a huge lever to India for negotiating better conditions for their nationals in the host countries. Other options could be either through regulations for recruitment agencies or extensive consular protection within the host countries. As Najeeb’s story shows, the embassy officials try to help, they however do this on an ad hoc basis. Some time ago, the Indian government tried to use pressure on potential employers in Kuwait by demanding a deposit for employing household maids, this was to ensure that in case there is a difficulty, the person would be able to at least go back to India. Due to intense pressure, the rule was lifted and now we are back to the status quo of having absolutely no protection. It is high time that home countries of migrant workers got together to ensure that their nationals are not treated inhumanely.
The problems are not new, however novel solutions will be required to deal with global migration and its consequences.