The Future of Work: 19th-Century Brutality, in the 21st Century

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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(Photo: Habeeb Mohammed Abu-Futtaim/Flickr)

(Photo: Habeeb Mohammed Abu-Futtaim/Flickr)

In Qatar, employers can now use their smartphones to notify police when their workers have run away. The service, heralded by the Ministry of Interior as an innovation that allows employers to report from “anywhere” and “at any time” that their workers have absconded, is part of a larger crackdown on violations of the kafala—or sponsorship—system in which migrants are bound to their employers.

Natasha Iskander is an associate professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

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Under its terms, migrants may not leave the country without their employer’s approval, may not change jobs, and may not refuse to work. Thus, the migrants who build the skyscrapers that jut out like crystals from the desert sand; who turn the futuristic visions of celebrity architects into stadiums for the 2022 World Cup; who staff Qatar’s banks, hotels, malls, and hospitals; who run the country’s airline; who clean houses and care for children cannot legally quit their jobs. Non-payment of wages, forced overtime, abuse and harassment, passport confiscation, fraud, violations of the labor contract—none of these provide workers with legal grounds to leave their employment relationship. Those charged with absconding face up to three years in jail and a fine several times the annual wage of most migrants in Qatar.

As it gears up to host the World Cup, Qatar has been called out for its labor practices. The kafala system has been roundly denounced as abetting slave labor—anathema to modern nations with economies based on the principle that workers are free persons. Much of the censure leveled at the wealthy gulf nation, with its portrayal of the labor system as backward and barbaric, is steeped in unsettling anti-Arab bias, but the contracts that migrants sign to work in Qatar do read like contemporary versions of the documents under cover of which indentured workers were shipped from India to its colonies and “coolie” migrants were brought from China to the Americas. Nineteenth-century plantation owners, re-structuring after emancipation, favored these contractual arrangements because they tethered migrants to their employers, proscribed them from leaving, and denied them the right to withhold their labor. Employers used the contracts to create an economic facsimile of slavery without its moral stain.

Apologists for the kafala system point to the protections that labor contracts afford workers, but the earlier contracts also stipulated that workers be provided housing, food and clothing allowances, and health care, and not be made to work more than a certain number of hours each day.

But singling out the sponsorship system in Qatar as a disturbing anachronism would be a mistake. Employment arrangements that tie migrants to their employers and prohibit them from refusing to work are widespread around the world today, prevalent in the more precarious segments of the labor market of the United States and Europe. In the U.S., for example, migrants on H2A visas for temporary farmworkers cannot change employers and cannot choose to refrain from working. If a worker has not reported to work for five consecutive days, employers are legally obligated to notify the authorities that the migrant has “absconded,” at which point the runaway is subject to summary deportation.

The right to withhold labor is the foundational right that makes us free. Poverty and extreme marginalization may compel us to work in exploitative arrangements, but our agency and choice are still preserved. Only when we are tied to our employment by law do we lose the absolute freedom to leave jobs that are abusive, demeaning, or larcenous. The right to withhold labor is arguably the source of all worker power. When workers exercise this right jointly, it is transformed into strikes or other forms of collective action that are the main redoubt against exploitation.

Depriving a person of the right to withhold labor is a kind of violence, inflicted on the body and the spirit. Yet migrants are routinely subjected to this violation, pressed to relinquish any rights over their own labor in exchange for the right to work and the right to stay. But so long as migrants are construed as a different, and legally separate, class of workers, their dispossession will remain marginal to political debates about work and employment.

There are hazards, though, to such unconcern. Through much of history, coercive labor arrangements have been the norm. The right to withhold labor was enshrined as a right only in 1930 by many countries (but not the U.S. and China) in an International Labour Organization convention. If we accept that some can be asked to forgo the right to withhold their labor, then we also concede that the right to decide how to use one’s own body and one’s own mind is not unalienable. If this right is not guaranteed for all, then it is protected for none. In economies from the U.S. to Brazil, the right to strike—to withhold labor collectively—is being steadily eroded. We can all be made unfree.

Over the next few decades, migration is likely to increase, and to become more erratic. As people are displaced by climate disaster and conflict, or some conflagration of both as we have witnessed in Syria, swells of migrants will cross deserts and scale armored walls; they will face the squalls of the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies. Many will die. Many thousands already have. Many more will be asked to surrender the right over their labor for the right to work. Recruiters for Qatar’s construction industry are already seeking areas where climate change has imposed this faustian bargain: they have targeted villages in Bangladesh where rising seas have turned fields into brackish swamps, destroying agricultural livelihoods, and have presented men with contracts that would enable them to send money home, but only if they consent to be bonded to their employer.

Meanwhile, in a trend likely to become ever more pronounced, the borders that encircle advanced economies have been militarized, undocumented migrants in the U.S. and Europe have been deported in unprecedented numbers, and technologies of state security apparatuses have penetrated local communities. The economic spaces where migrants can live and work—without trading their right to withhold their labor for protection from detention, deportation, and sanction—have been radically constricted. They will be compressed even further.

As countries move to restrict the freedom of migrant workers, the question is not whether the kafala system in Qatar is a vestige of some earlier, more brutal time. The question is not whether Qatar is our past, but rather whether Qatar is our future.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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