For most people in the western world the word slavery conjures images of centuries ago. Black Africans were captured and involuntarily transported to the new world, chained and forced to work without wages or the possibility of freedom. Fortunately this situation has been consigned to the past for the last 121 years (Brazil being the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery in 1888).
Here in Oman, slavery was only outlawed 39 years ago – well within living memory. When the current Sultan overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970, many things changed for the better, and Oman was brought out of self-imposed isolation. One of the great steps towards modernisation was to make it illegal for people to be the possessions of other people. There was a sizeable population of people descended from Zanzibaris, a former African colony of Oman. These people were freed and made Omani citizens.
However, it seems that this only served to drive slavery underground. In Oman, and elsewhere in the Middle East, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of people living in a situation very similar to slavery. Over the Eid al-Fitur holiday I met the Filipina housemaid of a supposedly wealthy Omani family. Although the father of the household did everything to stop her from talking to me, she got a message to me that she was mistreated there and badly wanted to leave. Although she had taken the job of her own free will, the working conditions quickly became something that she had not volunteered for:
Lidena (name changed), has been made to work from the time she wakes until she goes to bed at night, sometimes getting as little as 2 or 3 hours sleep; her contractual rate was 60 Omani Rials per month (roughly US$150), but her “employer” frequently refuses to pay her; she is often verbally (though not physically) abused; during the month of Ramadhan she was forced to fast, even though she is not Muslim, and she was still expected to work in 42 degree heat; she is not allowed to leave the household compound, even to go to the supermarket and her door is locked from the outside at night-time; she is not allowed to speak to anyone from outside the family, and finally; her passport was taken from her when she started there, and not returned. In short, this is slavery in everything but name.
The problem is that in most GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, the government does not do anything for, and does not seem to want to know about, people like Lidena. In fact, they make it difficult for her to get another job if she was to leave (ie/ escape) before the end of her contract. Apparently forced labour is common in this part of the world, which depends so heavily on migrant workers. They are promised well paying jobs with good work conditions, but when they arrive in the country they find the reality very different, and the law does little to protect them.
Lidena is contracted to work until July 2011. If she sees out her contract, she will have worked roughly 10,795 hours before then and will theoretically earn as much as US$3,275. In reality, her “employer” pays her less and less often and she is unlikely to see a fraction of that.