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Human trafficking: the dirty secret behind the United Arab Emirates’ glittering skyscrapers

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The U.A.E. is not just a revolving door for dirty money. It also has significant ties to human trafficking, particularly in the construction industry. 

Only 16 cases of human trafficking, involving 28 victims, were registered last year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Cooperation, compared to 25 cases involving 34 victims per the prior yearly report by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking. But even though the numbers appear to be decreasing, human trafficking remains incredibly difficult to quantify. The majority of these cases involve prostitution and abuse of authority against domestic workers. The construction industry, on the other hand, tends to be above suspicion.

Construction: the hidden haven of human trafficking

Several international players in the construction world have sought to shine a light on the subject over the last decade. In 2009, Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and winner of the 2006 TED prize, addressed the issue of human trafficking in the construction industry in his 2009 TED talk, calling the U.A.E. out specifically. “In the last six months, more than 300 skyscrapers in the U.A.E. have been put on hold or canceled. Behind the headlines that lay behind these buildings is the fate of the often-indentured construction worker. 1.1 million of them,” he explains, before continuing. “Mainly Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Nepalese, these laborers risk everything to make money for their families back home. They pay a middle-man thousands of dollars to be there. And when they arrive, they find themselves in labor camps with no water, no air conditioning, and their passports taken away.”

Rachid*, a Pakistani worker, narrowly escaped. “When I arrived here (in Dubai) in 2015, I found myself at an enormous construction site with deplorable living conditions,” he emphasized, “my passport was essentially stolen from me, and I didn’t know how to leave.” Rasheed paints a devastating picture. “I worked without respite, sometimes without a single break the whole day,” he recounts, looking down, as if ashamed. “I must have lost ten kilos in three weeks, I never had enough to eat. It wasn’t what my family expected of me.” Like other workers in his situation, Rasheed eventually left the country to return to Pakistan, leaving behind his dreams of a decent salary, the hopes of his family back home, and over $2,500 with the malicious smugglers who accompanied him from Dubai only to desert him.

For Khaled, a 29-year-old Indian, the story isn’t over. He is desperate to name the group he worked for, but as he is still in the U.A.E., he restrains himself and conceals their identity. “It was in 2008, I was quite young,” he explains. “I came to the U.A.E. to join a construction project already underway. It was a hellish downward spiral. First, I was told there were hiring fees, I was made to sign a paper I couldn’t read.” He goes on, “I had no translator, and I didn’t find out until a month later that these ‘hiring fees’, equivalent to more than two-and-a-half years’ salary, would be withheld from my pay. So, I had nothing to live off of, and I was condemned to accept the inhuman living conditions.” Khaled bowed to fate and saw the contract out. Two-and-a-half years later, he left the construction site and was hired by another company where he works to this day and is quite happy. “Anyways, after what I went through, I think I could endure anything,” he concludes.

The appearance of heightened regulation since 2013

Despite this, pressure on the U.A.E. is quite recent, only going back to 2013, when it emerged for a very specific reason: the country’s organizing of the 2020 World’s Fair. Under the watchful eye of the international community, no misstep is allowed. But, outside the hubbub of construction for the event, human trafficking continues to abound, and few preventative or repressive measures have been taken. Amnesty International makes note of this in its 2017-2018 report. “[In 2017] migrant workers, who comprised the vast majority of the private workforce, continued to face exploitation and abuse. They remained tied to employers under the kafala sponsorship system and were denied collective bargaining rights,” they write. “Trade unions remained banned and migrant workers who engaged in strike action faced deportation and a one-year ban on returning to the UAE.”

Federal law no. 10 of 2017, limiting working hours and providing for weekly leave and 30 days’ paid annual leave as well as the right to retain personal documents, only came into effect in September of last year. The law also appears to enable employees to end their contract of employment if the employer violates any of its terms, and stipulates that disputes will be adjudicated by specialized tribunals as well as by courts. However, salaried migrant workers remain vulnerable to employers accusing them of overly broad and vague crimes such as “failing to protect their employer’s secrets”, which carry fines of up to Dh100,000 (USD 27,225) or a six-month prison sentence.

Amnesty International continues its warning about the current situation: “In September the UN CERD Committee expressed concern over the lack of monitoring and enforcement of measures to protect migrant workers, and over barriers faced by migrant workers in accessing justice, such as their unwillingness to submit complaints for fear of adverse repercussions.” If authorities do their job in the situation described, then for Cameron Sinclair, the private sector should also come under scrutiny. “While it’s easy to point the finger at local officials and higher authorities … the private sector [is] equally, if not more, accountable,” he maintains.

It would seem that given the absence of implementation of directives, despite official enactment, and the restriction of freedom of speech and association, human trafficking in the U.A.E.’s construction industry will be around for a while yet.

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Romanian sex trafficking brothers who modified penises with metal balls to cause more pain to rape victims jailed for 108 years

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Romanian sex trafficking brothers

Two Romanian brothers who trafficked vulnerable young women into Spain and forced them into prostitution have been jailed for a total of 108 years after a court heard they inserted metal balls into their penises in a bid to cause maximum pain to their rape victims.

Cristian and Sebastián Sandulache, who were said to have made as much as €11,000 ($12,448) a night by forcing their victims to sell sex, were sentenced to 55 and 53 years respectively by a Spanish court last month.

Despite the huge amount of money the brothers and their fellow gang members were able to rake in, their victims were paid only around €200 a fortnight after being told they must work off the debt they had built up travelling to Spain.

As well as modifying their penises to cause the women they trafficked as much pain as possible, prosecutors told the court the sadistic siblings sliced one woman’s arm off with a samurai sword, and forced others to eat euro banknotes when they failed to bring in enough money while prostituting themselves.

After forcing the women to wash down the notes with water, the brothers are said to have told them they would be made to eat coins should they fail to make sufficient money in the future.

The pair made victims sell their bodies at a brothel in the northwest town of Oviedo after luring them from their home country of Romania with false promises of well-paid legitimate work.

Once the women arrived in Spain, the brothers stripped them of their travel documents and mobile phones, before beating and raping them and forcing them to work as prostitutes.

While serving a previous prison sentence, the brothers sliced holes in their own penises and inserted metal balls into the holes as part of a bid to make sex more pleasurable for themselves and more painful for their partners, the court was told.

As well as being handed lengthy jail terms, the brothers were also ordered to pay their victims large amounts of compensation.

The pair’s lawyers said they both intend to appeal the length of their sentences, having initially denied all of the charges against them, maintaining that the women who accused them of wrongdoing were lying, and were only interested in extracting compensation from them.

If they had been convicted of all the charges they faced, the brothers could have been handed a total of 600 years behind bars.

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UN report: Global cases of human trafficking hit 13-year high in 2016

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global cases of human trafficking hit 13-year high

A new report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) yesterday revealed that cases of human trafficking across the globe reached a 13-year high in 2016.

The agency’s latest Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, which was unveiled yesterday at the UN’s headquarters in New York, also found that the conviction rate of trafficking offenders hit an all-time high that year.

UNODC said the rise in conviction rates could either have been the result of countries across the world improving their ability to identify victims of trafficking and investigate offenders, or an overall increase in the number of cases.

In total, the UN recorded more than 25,000 cases of human trafficking globally in 2016, compared to fewer than 20,000 in 2003.

Noting that while many countries had improved the way in which they monitor trafficking activity over the course of the past decade, the report said the fact that some nations have low conviction rates, such as many in Asia and Africa, does not necessarily mean traffickers are not active within their borders.

In fact, victims from countries that have low rates of trafficking detection and conviction were often found in large numbers in other parts of the world, suggesting that traffickers are able to operate without fearing the intervention of authorities in these nations.

The report found that sexual exploitation was the reason most victims are trafficked, particularly in the Americas, Europe, and East Asia and the Pacific, with women and girls remaining the primary targets of trafficking gangs.

Trafficking for the purposes of forced labour was found to be the most common form of the crime in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, while in Central Asia and South Asia, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation were found by the UN to be equally prevalent.

Other forms of human trafficking described in the report include forced marriage, illegal adoption, forced criminality, organ harvesting and trafficking for exploitation in begging, or for the production of pornographic material.

Presenting the new report yesterday, UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said: “The report was undertaken for a simple reason: if we want to succeed in confronting human trafficking in all its manifestations, we must better understand its scope and structure.

“We need to appreciate where human trafficking is happening, who are its victims and who is perpetrating this crime.

“The international community needs to accelerate progress to build capacities and cooperation, to stop human trafficking in conflict situations and in all our societies where this terrible crime continues to operate in the shadows,” he stated in the report’s preface.

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Marriott teaches 500,000 frontline hotel workers how to spot signs of human trafficking

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Marriott teaches 500,000 frontline hotel workers

US global hotel chain Marriott has taught 500,000 of its workers how to spot the signs that a guest might be a victim of human trafficking, and what they should do in the event they are faced with such a scenario.

The company rolled out mandatory human trafficking awareness courses for staff members working at its managed and franchised sites across the world in January 2017.

Announcing the milestone figure during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in the US, the company said that young trafficking victims had been identified and rescued as a direct result of the training it has provided to its workers.

The programme, which was developed in cooperation with anti-trafficking NGOs ECPAT-USA and Polaris, is available in 17 languages, and can be delivered in either a classroom environment or online.

The precise structure of the course differs depending on the nature of staff members’ roles, owing to the fact that an employee working on the front desk of a hotel might be exposed to different aspects of human trafficking compared to a bartender.

Among other things, Marriott workers are told to be on the lookout for vulnerable young people who might be travelling with minimal luggage and clothing, while being escorted by multiple men to a guest room.

Employees are also instructed to be alert for individuals who are unable to speak freely or seem disoriented, and guests who insist on receiving little or no housekeeping.

The workers are taught to make notes about any suspicions they have that a person might be a victim of human trafficking, and then report their concerns to a manager, who can then make a decision as to whether police should be called.

Commenting on the firm’s training programme, David Rodriguez, Chief Global Human Resources Officer at Marriott International, said in a statement: “Hotels can unfortunately be unwilling venues for this unconscionable crime – and as a global hotel company that cares about human rights, we’re proud to be training hotel workers across the Marriott system to spot the signs.

“There is no easy fix, but combatting modern-day slavery starts with awareness – and we now have a significant number of people capable of recognising suspicious behaviour and reporting it to management and, in some cases, law enforcement.”

National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which takes place every January across the US, is designed to raise awareness of the crime, and encourage members of the public to report any concerns they might have that a vulnerable person might have become a victim.

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