Migrant Rights’ New Graphic

Migrant Rights has just unveiled this striking new cartoon for a media campaign for migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf. This image will be published in newspapers in the region as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the human rights of migrant workers. Migrant Rights is a sub-site of Mideast Youth, a regional blogging and advocacy platform, run by the now famous ‘cyber-activist’ Esra’a al Shafei.

Millions of workers from developing countries, mainly South Asia and the Philippines, work in the Gulf states, Lebanon and Jordan as maids, construction workers, cleaners, drivers and factory workers. Sadly, many of them are subject to gross violations of their human rights by their employers, including non-payment of wages, physical, sexual and mental abuse, and exposure to dangerous working conditions on building sites and in factories. In the past three months there has been a disturbing spate of suicides by maids employed in the Gulf and Lebanon, who have been unable to bear the misery of working for an abusive employer, with no means of escape.

This is the Middle East human rights issue that no-one wants to talk  about. In boom-towns like Dubai and Bahrain you can live and work completely oblivious to the suffering of migrants from the developing world. That’s because they are conveniently hidden from view. Construction workers on mega-projects such as the Burj Dubai toil away on construction sites during the day and are then bussed away to squalid labour camps outside the city limits at night. Maids are in an even worse position, as they are often trapped within the confines of their employers home, forbidden to leave the house. There is no-where for them to turn if their employer becomes violent or subjects them to sexual abuse.

The point of this campaign, as this graphic captures perfectly, is to bring these individuals out of the shadows and into the conscience of society.

This image really struck a chord with me, and when I first saw it this afternoon I couldn’t stop looking at it. A couple of years ago, I was an aspiring financial journalist, and had been sent on assignment to Bahrain to write some stories about real estate. Outside my hotel there was a big construction site, and I could see cranes and the beginning of towers rearing up into the skyline. But because the site was fenced off I could never see the people who worked there.  One night, I was coming back from work when I saw, through a gap in the fence, a group of South Indian men in boiler suits peering through the dark. The sight was pretty much exactly what you see in this picture.

After a week of writing about real estate prices and investment returns the thought hit me hard – who is actually building all this? The reality disturbed me, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. A couple of months later, I was sent to a trade fair in Dubai. On the way out of the conference hall one night, as I walked down Sheikh Zayed Road with colleagues searching for a taxi to take us out for cocktails, there they were again, a similar group of guys standing in the half-dark, looking at us through a gap in the boundary fence of a building site. There we had been all day singing the praises of the Middle Eastern property market (this was back in 2007 before the market crashed), while out on the building site these men had been slaving in the 45 degree heat and were probably about to be crammed like cattle into a bus to be taken to ‘Sonapur’ or one of the other filthy and overcrowded labour camps for the night.

Not long after that, I came accross the Migrant Rights website, dropped Esra’a an email and ended up getting involved with the project as an editor. From that point I’ve never been able to see the Gulf States in quite the same light. Not that I’m opposed to progress or rapid economic growth, but the price that has boom-towns like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have paid for it is just too high. My journalist life has come to a halt for now as I took another job and came to Nepal, but since this is a country where many of these workers come from, the issue is still very much on my mind (although I should probably point out that this is in no way linked to the job I’m doing here)

I hope that this campaign will stir the conscience of the general public in the Gulf, and will be a productive step towards breaking the silence that surrounds the issue of abuse of migrant workers.

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