Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Why the Gulf States Need Labor Unions

When it comes to the oil-rich sheikdoms of the Arabian Gulf, media and governments in the West have been largely united in their praise. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently dubbed the emirate of Dubai "an amazing city-state on the Gulf that is becoming the Singapore of the Arab East," and told NPR's Terry Gross that the Palestinians should emulate it. (He left it up to listeners to imagine how one could emulate Dubai without billions of dollars in oil reserves.) Christopher Hitchens wrote last week in Slate about his recent visit to Qatar, which he described as "a sort of cross between Switzerland and Hong Kong." He hailed the little country, among other things, for its treatment of immigrant workers, who receive "a much better deal than their semi-indentured fellows in Riyadh and Jeddah." The Bush administration apparently agrees. The White House has signed a bilateral free-trade agreement with Bahrain and is pushing for agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Since 2001, the White House has been calling for a Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) similar to NAFTA, which it hopes will transform Arab politics by liberalizing Arab economies. This idea is a guiding principle for newly appointed Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who formerly served Bush as U.S. Trade Representative. He has invoked the "spirit of the Levant," the region's history as "the world's preeminent bazaar," and even the Koran to argue for free-trade agreements with Middle Eastern countries.

These sentiments sound nice. But they are increasingly out of touch with reality. While news coverage of the region has lately focused on elections in Baghdad and Ramallah, and protests in Cairo and Beirut, there is growing political unrest in Gulf capitals, too. Some of it takes the form of Al Qaeda-style violence, once exclusive to Saudi Arabia but now common in Kuwait and cropping up in Qatar as well. But there's another form of discontent that's ubiquitous in the Arabian desert--even amid the shimmering skyscrapers of Friedman's "amazing city-state on the Gulf": The appalling treatment of workers in these countries has spawned gutsy labor movements, which are agitating for basic freedoms of association and collective bargaining. In two Gulf capitals they have already gained some ground. Yet the United States, apparently intoxicated by the promise of free trade with Gulf states, has not done enough to support them. This is too bad--not only because the groups are fighting for American values such as freedom and social justice, but also because many of the Gulf's labor leaders happen to be pro-Western and anti-Islamist.


Think of Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s, and you have an inspiring example of the liberating power of trade unions in the face of centralized authoritarian rule. Now lose that analogy for a moment and enter the alternate universe of the Gulf. Unlike other regions of the world, many Gulf states are populated primarily by foreign migrant workers. A small elite stratum of the Gulf's foreign population is composed of educated Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, and Westerners who teach at schools and manage companies and stores. The rest are primarily underclass--migrants from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and poorer Arab countries. When Gulf states experienced construction booms from the '70s through the early '90s, a larger proportion of migrant workers were male. Now the trend favors women, many of whom work as domestic servants.

To document the harsh conditions these workers face, an International Labor Organization survey published in 2004 compared domestic-worker conditions in Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE with domestic-worker conditions in Costa Rica. How many days do you have off per month? the survey asked. In Costa Rica, the average was four to six; in the UAE (whose commercial capital is Dubai), the average was zero. Are you physically, verbally, or sexually abused? In Costa Rica, 14 percent said yes; in the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, roughly 50 percent said yes. Is your freedom of movement controlled? In Costa Rica, the answer was generally no; in the three Gulf states, it was overwhelmingly yes. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has likened Kuwait's worker conditions to "indentured servitude."

All these data reflect those sheikdoms where workers are thought to be treated the best. In Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar, by contrast, just to ask such survey questions would be illegal. Workers' passports in Gulf states are usually confiscated by their masters, and there is little or no recourse to complain of maltreatment. When a migrant worker wants to leave the Gulf, it's not always easy to regain one's passport or afford a plane ticket. Consider the following from the March 27 Gulf Daily News in Bahrain:

Workers of a top garment factory went on a rampage last night following the death of a colleague. More than 500 Asians working for the MRS Fashions, which makes trousers for J C Penny, started damaging the factory's East Riffa premises after their colleague, who was kept in isolation for 15 days due to chicken pox, committed suicide. ... The workers--mainly from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh--claimed two other workers had committed suicide in the past, another died of a heart attack and five others became insane as a result of harsh working conditions that require them to work for more than 12 hours daily. They blamed the manager of the factory for their ordeal. The workers also alleged physical abuse by floor managers and said they were not getting proper food and medical care.

If ever there was a place deserving of labor unions with teeth, the Gulf is it.

Many countries, unfortunately, are missing the key ingredient for the formation of workers' rights movements: a critical mass of disenfranchised locals who understand the region well enough to get a movement off the ground. It's not surprising, therefore, that the countries where labor has begun to seriously organize are Bahrain and Kuwait--the two Gulf states with a sizable Shia underclass. In Bahrain, Shias are the majority of the local population, though the ruling family is Sunni. Unemployment among Bahrain's Shias is high: Despite the large number of migrant workers, the country's unemployment rate is between 13 and 16 percent--and is believed to be much higher among Shias. In Kuwait, where Shias are only about a third of the population, the labor movement is weaker than Bahrain's, but well ahead of its near-dormant counterparts in Sunni Qatar, Oman, or the UAE.

Who are the union leaders, and what are they saying to their constituents? An American labor activist who recently visited the Gulf has shared with me a collection of Arabic-language newsletters from several nascent unions. Beyond critiquing working conditions and government restrictions on organized labor, they take pains to express an ideology that is radical for the Gulf--a notion of solidarity and social equality that spurns ethnicity or the heated language of religion. Here's an excerpt from a piece by the president of the Bahrain Airport Services union, Abdullah Hussein, from the March 2005 issue of that union's eight-page newsletter:

[T]here is one single truth ... embodied by the capability of labor unions to exact more rights for workers, increase wages, prevent the tyrannical isolation of individuals and groups, improve the conditions and circumstances of labor, and enter into serious negotiations with the administrations of companies. The ability of unions to realize their demands would not be feasible without a workers' conscience--by the members of the union--of the importance of workers' unity, cohesion, mutual assistance, and standing without hesitation behind their unions. Unity and solidarity on the part of workers are the most powerful weapons workers have, by which they will be able to realize their demands and exact their justice and legitimate rights.

Having lived in the Gulf emirate of Dubai for the better part of an academic year in 1999, and traveled around a bit, I can attest: You don't often see these sort of ideas in print. I did see missives on migrant workers--but from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which explained strategies for converting those workers to Islam.


Though Gulf unionists' writings show their passion for collective action, it's hard to imagine their efforts amounting to much without a serious nudge from a superpower. Bahrain's labor movement operated semi-underground, without legal protection, during the '80s and '90s, and has won some official status thanks to a forward-looking young king over the past three years. The country is on track to join the WTO and signed a free-trade agreement with the United States--the only one in the Gulf so far--last September. Yet according to the U.S. State Department, Bahrain's labor movement has just 11,300 members, stretched over 40 private-sector and 6 public-sector unions, out of a national workforce in the hundreds of thousands.

Those numbers aren't bad for non-Islamist political groups in a Gulf state, but they're still no great shakes. In Kuwait, where the government is now in FTA talks with the United States., de facto unions have the status of government-sanctioned "committees," and their membership is smaller. Whatever pressure the U.S. may be exerting on these governments to create a legal space for unions to flourish, the governments haven't yielded all that much.

Meanwhile, American labor has raised concerns about White House haste to establish FTAs with the more egregious violators of workers' rights--like Oman and the UAE--in the coming months. The AFL-CIO's Thea Lee told Congress last year, "To grant the UAE an FTA in the present circumstances would mark a significant reversal of previous policy, and a huge step backwards in the cause of workers' rights in the Gulf region."

On March 26, the UAE announced a ban on the use of underage children as camel jockeys in its many races. They were mostly one-and-a-half and two-year-olds from the Indian subcontinent, Yemen, and Sudan--numbering around 2,700, according to the UAE government. This symbolic concession has the effect of eliminating an historic eyesore--the pain those children suffered was manifest to crowds of thousands--but is little more than a token gesture in the grand scheme of UAE labor rights.


In light of the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, it's hard to fathom why the United States would even consider ignoring a secular movement in the Gulf with reasonable goals and thousands of members. The American labor official who recently visited the region observed that 4 of the 46 Bahraini unions have woman chiefs--and the umbrella group that unites them has already reached out to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels for membership. Compare that with Egypt, where the millions-strong labor movement has been around for decades but still has no official relationship with Brussels.

Professional unions in many Arab countries have been largely ineffectual by international standards--aside from their proclivity for banning "normalization" between their members and worker counterparts in Israel. (Even the Nablus-based Palestinian confederation has been excluded from the rickety Arab labor establishment in Damascus, as punishment for its ties to the Israeli union Histadrut.) The Gulf unions, by contrast, according to the American labor official, desire logistical support and training from the United States--a sentiment you don't hear very often from the traditional Arab labor headquarters in Damascus. To be sure, the Bahraini unions are--and the Kuwaiti unions are about to become--members of the Damascus-based establishment. All the same, their eagerness for American partnership is an opportunity to plant the seeds of meaningful political change.

What can the United States do for these unions in practical terms? In countries where there are no unions, the U.S. government should demand to know why--well before a free trade agreement is signed. Laws restricting public assembly--which exist in many Gulf states--ought to be eased in any country wishing to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States. But the right to assemble is only the first step in a long road that should lead to the rights to strike and collectively bargain--which either don't exist or are severely constrained in all Gulf states.

And it's not just the U.S. government that has a role to play. In countries where unions are already active and feisty, like Bahrain and Kuwait, American labor unions should lend support to their counterparts by offering advice and tactical training.

It would be a shame to see America's ability to push this agenda hindered by domestic politics. Though President Bush recently acknowledged the importance of labor unions in the building of healthy democracies, it's no secret that pro-business conservatives are far from sympathetic to unions in general. At the same time, one hopes that American labor will not be held back by the suspicions of its own left flank, some of whom view any global outreach--especially to the Arab world--as part of a neo-imperialist project. The Bush administration and American labor might seem like odd allies. But if "the world's preeminent bazaar" is to ever become a tolerable place to work, Gulf unions are going to need the help of both.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World.