Conflict update: March 18-19 2017



If you’re one of those folks who are convinced that climate change is a Chinese hoax or whatever, I’ve got great news: it snowed in the US last week. Problem solved, am I right? Anyway, for the rest of us, things are not so hot. Or, rather, they’re extremely hot, and that’s the problem:

February 2017 was the planet’s second warmest February since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated February 2017 as the second warmest February on record. The only warmer February was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, February 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was the seventh warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just one month after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database) and February 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 a shot at becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record, if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

Arctic sea ice extent during February 2017 was the lowest in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in February 2016, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due, in large part, to very warm air temperatures in the Arctic—temperatures at the 925 mb level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were 2 – 5 degrees Celsius (4 – 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean during February.

Sea ice has been exceptionally scant on the other end of the globe. Antarctic sea ice extent dropped below the lowest values recorded in any month in the satellite record by mid-February. They continued to sag until reaching a new record-low extent in early March.

NOAA also said a few days ago that this December-January-February period was the second hottest on record. But really, how about that snowstorm?


Continue reading

Oh, well, by all means carry on then

Last Wednesday the Washington Post produced a graphic purporting to show the number of migrant workers who have died in Qatar (1200) on work related to the 2022 World Cup as compared to worker deaths for other major international sporting events (I used it here). Qatar cried foul, saying that those 1200 migrant workers, while still dead, did not in fact die on “World Cup construction sites,” that Actually there hasn’t been a single migrant worker death on “World Cup construction sites.” The Post has now changed the graphic to refer to “migrant worker deaths since Dec. 2010,” when the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar. We all regret the error.

Except…well, for one thing, the Qataris overplayed their hand here. I mean, you guys didn’t think people would notice your use of the oddly specific designation of “World Cup construction sites”? Meaning that plenty of those workers could have died on World Cup-related work, just not on a specific World Cup site? What about a worker who maybe got hurt on one of those sites but had the good taste to die someplace else, how would he be counted? And for another thing, part of Qatar’s defense here relies on the fact that, as Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan pointed out to Foreign Policy, “construction has really only started in earnest on one of the stadiums being built.” Your defense is that you’ve gotten 1200 migrant workers killed and you’ve only barely begun the heaviest load of World Cup construction work? Again, this is a defense?

The Qataris also trotted out their old chestnut about how it’s perfectly normal that this many migrant workers would be dropping dead. Sure; that, and not the fact that they’re forced to work in 40-plus degree Celsius heat without adequate rest or water, explains why you’ve got a bunch of 20-something year old men dying of heart attacks. But, you know, the system is going to change soon, just give it time; Qatar only established a National Human Rights Commission a scant 13 years ago, so clearly they’re still at the early stages of figuring out this whole “human rights” thing.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy most anything else

If you’re at all familiar with Arabic society, you know that it has some roots in the pastoral nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin, who have herded sheep, goats, and camels around the Arabian peninsula and into the Syrian and Egyptian deserts for as long as people have been keeping written records in and about that part of the world. Most Arab groups have either always been settled or have transitioned over the centuries from nomads to settled folk, but there are still some Arabs who spend at least part of the year as nomadic herders. Nomads and their descendents pose an obvious problem for modern nation-states, which love them some stable national borders, because nomads come and go across borders pretty much at will. This isn’t a problem in the Arabian peninsula, because most of it is Saudi so the Saudis don’t have much issue treating them as Saudi citizens, but countries like Kuwait, Iraq, and the U.A.E. have been dealing for some time now with the issue of nomads and their descendants, who are called Bidoon. This word does not derive, as you might think, from “Bedouin,” but from the Arabic word bidun, or “without,” as in bidun al-jinsiyah, “without nationality,” or “stateless.”

There are around 100,000 Bidoon in the world. Nobody wants to claim them, so they exist in pure legal limbo, literally without a country to call home, though they insist that they are legitimate native citizens of the countries in which they reside and vocally demand that they be treated as such. This is a particular problem in a small country like Kuwait, though it must be said that Kuwait has more than enough resources to comfortably assume responsibility for its Bidoon population. They just don’t want to, and they’ve taken some heat over the years for mistreating these folks. Why not just make them Kuwaiti citizens? Well, some of Kuwait’s stateless residents, as it turns out, are Saudis pretending not to be Saudi, and many more are ethnic Iranians whose families have probably been in the area for centuries, so it’s probably tied up in notions of Kuwaiti national pride and bigotry. That hasn’t stopped Kuwait from using employing these folks in the Kuwaiti army, but that’s not a real solution given that Kuwait still doesn’t want to make the Bidoon citizens en masse. Luckily, a permanent solution has revealed itself: Kuwait bought its Bidoon population citizenship in the Comoros: Continue reading

America’s kafalah system

At Vox today, Dara Lind distills a report from The Urban Institute and Northwestern University on the underground forced labor market here in America, which in several respects sounds an awful lot like the kafalah system in place for migrant workers in the Persian Gulf:

Here’s how it happens: a person in Mexico or the Philippines, for example, finds out about an opportunity in the United States through a friend or relative. An employer is offering a nursing job that comes with a green card — so long as the immigrant pays many thousands of dollars in fees and puts her family in debt.

By the time the immigrant arrives in the United States, she finds out most of what she’s been told is a lie. Instead of a green card, she receives a restrictive, temporary work visa. Instead of nursing, she’ll be working as a domestic servant. Her passport and work papers are locked away, she’s not allowed to leave the house, and money is taken out of her paycheck for housing and food. Her employers remind her that if she tries to run away, they’ll make sure she gets deported.

Let’s see: migrant workers are recruited to come here with a list of outright lies, have their travel papers taken from them upon arrival, and have money taken from their paychecks by their employers (in return for providing them with a barely subsistence-level existence), all under threat of deportation if they don’t go along with the exploitation. Yep, that’s kafalah. Continue reading

How many people do you need to kill to host a World Cup?

If the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the UAE actually cared about the safety of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf, this would have been a pretty good rationale for withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar:

A report from the International Trade Union Confederation says 1,200 migrant workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

The ITUC estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will die by the time the first game is played in 2022. The report is in line with recent death numbers from the embassies of the two countries.

The Nepalese embassy in Qatar reported last month that 400 Nepalese workers had died working on World Cup projects since 2010. The Indian embassy reported that 500 Indian workers had died in Qatar since 2012. There are 1.4 million migrant workers in Qatar, the ITUC reports, many of whom are now tasked with building the infrastructure necessary to host a World Cup from scratch.

Just by comparison, preparations for the recent Sochi Olympics saw around 60 worker deaths, and the 2004 Athens Olympics suffered 40 worker deaths, and those are easily the two largest figures for any Olympics or World Cup this century, so “1200 going on 4000” worker deaths is utterly appalling.

The entire ITUC report reads like a dystopian nightmare in which the migrant workers have the status of indentured servants and are literally being worked to death by their Qatari employers for minimal pay (which is frequently less than what those workers were promised when they were recruited to go work in Qatar).

“Julie” is a cleaner from the Philippines:

I signed up in Manila to be a waitress. However, our company forced some of us to work two shifts, first working as cleaners in schools all morning, from 6:00 am -12:00 pm, and then working in hotels in food service and housekeeping from 3:00 pm-12:00 am in some of the most luxurious hotels in Doha. The company driver picked us up at 1am. We got so little sleep. We worked 26 days a month, all but Fridays, and even then our manager would yell at us to work on our one day off.

I have to return to my labour camp by 23:00. If I return late, my employer makes salary reductions without notifying me.

After being in Qatar for five years, I would like to take my annual leave and go back home for a short visit. The company practice is that the manager demands a deposit payment of US$ 275 – an amount which I cannot afford in addition to the price of the ticket.

“Benigno,” a driver also from the Philippines:

I signed a contract with a recruitment agency in the Philippines authenticated by the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration and promising a payment of US$ 484 per month.

But when I arrived in Qatar, my employer told me this contract was invalid. He confiscated my passport and then presented me with another contract with a payment of US$ 376 per month. We refused to sign this contract because we were misled into this situation. However, I still started to work for the company because I have to pay back my debts back home of US$ 471.

My colleagues and I are aware of the injustice that is done to us, but we are afraid to complain to the authorities. We see that workers who do complain are either blacklisted, deported or threatened. Our managers told us that workers who go on strike get deported within 12 hours.

A Nepalese carpenter named “Raju” had his retina detached when he was struck in the eye with a nail while working in rainy conditions without having been given safety goggles. He had to go to the labor court to try to get compensation for his injury. He had to pay out of his own pocket to have court documents translated from Arabic to Nepali.

The mistreatment is ubiquitous and can be seen in construction and road crews, where workers are forced to work even in on summer days when the temperature approaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit, to domestic workers, who are routinely abused by their employers, and even to workers in Doha’s swank Education City complex, where many prestigious Western universities (whose leaders frankly ought to be ashamed of themselves) have satellite campuses whose offices are cleaned and staffed by migrants making $220 or so per month.

There are several individual stories in the report, but it’s the photographs of the squalor in which these workers are forced to live that is most striking. The ITUC investigators did two things right: they counted deaths due to “natural causes” (since being forced to perform intensive labor in 120 degree summer heat and then dying of a heart attack is not “natural”) and unsafe living conditions right alongside deaths due to actual workplace mishaps

Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accidents, heart attack (brought on by the life threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same – working conditions.

and they went to worker camps outside the Qatari capital, Doha, where migrant workers live in awful conditions but still better than what they’re forced to live in elsewhere in the country. In Al Wakrah, whose football stadium is being expanded from 20,000 seats to around 45,000 seats in advance of the World Cup (and in an effort to build Al Wakrah up into a major city), workers, who had their passports confiscated (which is supposed to be illegal) and were expected to survive on around US$220 per month, were found to be living in the half-finished stadium, sleeping ten to a room and cooking and eating in unsanitary conditions.

The Qataris insist that the ITUC report is bogus because it totally doesn’t give them the ‘A’ they deserve for effort. Their Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy issued a statement that contained an impressive amount of words given that none of them, when put together, actually say anything:

“The International Trade Union Confederation’s statement that our standards have no credible enforcement mechanism is hence both incorrect and misleading,” the committee said. “We know that there are issues. While this process of change is not something that can be achieved overnight, we have the will and the commitment to see it through.”

Sure, definitely they’ve got the will to something something. Except that there has been a series of reports like this one done since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup almost four years ago, and it’s apparent in every one of them that not a single thing has changed in Qatar’s labor policy since the previous report was done. Nobody is asking for the system to be completely fixed overnight, but some sign of change in four freaking years is not asking too much. Maybe instead of talking about their “commitment to see it through,” the Qataris should actually do something about the problem.

Everybody knows what the solutions are: break the kafalah system that keeps migrant workers at the total whim of their Qatari “sponsors” (a euphemism for “masters”), establish a wage structure that does not discriminate by nationality the way the current system does, enforce the law when it comes to confiscating passports, allow workers to freely associate and unionize, stop charging new workers a “recruitment fee” (a direct violation of international labor law), provide reasonable accommodations, and start protecting domestic workers from abusive employers. Hell, just hiring enough inspectors to actually visit all the work sites and camps around the country, and enforcing the laws that are already on the books, would be a start. Some of these changes would cost money, I realize, but the country with the largest per capita GDP in the world can probably afford to shell out a few bucks here and there to try to keep the workers who support its economic largesse alive.

The ITUC report contends that “[i]f FIFA demand[s] Qatar abolish kafala and respect fundamental international rights, it will happen.” That’s probably true, but good luck waiting for FIFA to do anything of the kind. It’s quite clear how FIFA operates:

Jack Warner, the former vice-president of Fifa, appears to have been personally paid $1.2 million (£720,000) from a company controlled by a former Qatari football official shortly after the decision to award the country the tournament.

I wonder if FIFA charges a flat bribe rate per worker killed, or if it’s a sliding scale. Probably a sliding scale.

It’s perfectly normal to have a few hundred migrant workers drop dead every year

I’ve written briefly about Qatar’s kind of horrific system of indentured servitude before, but they’ve been under increased scrutiny for their labor practices of late. Qatar imports almost all of its labor force, and that’s understandable; with only about 300,000 or so Qatari citizens they are kind of forced to bring labor in from the outside in order to make full use of their tremendous resource wealth. But the system for importing those workers, called kafalah, is fundamentally exploitative. Foreigners who come to Qatar (and, it must be said, to other Gulf nations as well), most of them as either manual or domestic laborers, must have a citizen sponsor (a kafil; the foreign workers are the “sponsored,” or makful) to ensure that they are legally allowed to be there and that their paperwork is all in order.

In practice the kafil is allowed to treat his makful in ways that really do approach indentured servitude, though foreigners in higher-status jobs from America and Europe are treated quite well while the unskilled laborers brought in from South and East Asia are the ones who are abused. Employers can take a foreign worker’s passport away, preventing them from leaving the country without  permission, and can force them to work extended hours in incredibly unsafe conditions (imagine working a paving crew in the summer in a country where the August highs can approach 46 C/115 F), for minimal pay while living in wretched circumstances. The workers have little recourse or legal standing to challenge any mistreatment, and the best they can hope for is usually to get their passport back and to be allowed to leave, which isn’t much of an enticement considering that their prospects back home were poor enough that they agreed to go to Qatar in the first place. The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, calls Qatar “a slave state,” which may be overstating but not by nearly enough.

In 2010 FIFA, displaying the strong awareness of and firm commitment to human rights issues that characterizes all high-level international sports organizations, awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Given that Qatar mistreats its manual laborers under normal conditions, human rights observers were justifiably concerned at the potential for additional abuses as the country races to not only build the venues it needs for the tournament, but also tries to build up its capital and one real city, Doha, to accommodate the crowds and expectations that the tournament brings with it (they are, for example, trying to build a subway system). FIFA promised to “monitor” the migrant worker situation, which probably means nothing but makes FIFA sound like they’re doing something, and they’ve promised to start paying attention to little niggling details like “an all-encompassing system that abuses and exploits workers” the next time they award the World Cup somewhere, which is nice. They insist that the World Cup will actually help improve the situation for workers in Qatar, since the Qataris can’t get away with exploiting them while the world is paying attention.

Yeah, well, not so much. AFP reported figures from the Indian Embassy in Doha that say that 478 migrant Indian workers have died in Qatar over the past two years, out of an Indian migrant population of around 500,000, which Qatari officials naturally want to claim is “normal.” Now, I’m no demographer or actuary, but a death rate of almost 100 per 100,000 among able-bodied young men is not “normal”; based on about 10 minutes of Googling, it seems that comparable figures in the US for 20-something men are around 25-30 deaths per 100,000. The ITUC calls the Qatari figure “exceptionally high,” and Human Rights Watch warns that it could signal “an unfolding tragedy.” More alarmingly, The Guardian reports that around 400 Nepalese workers have died on building sites since FIFA announced the 2022 award in December 2010, and that’s out of a total population of only about 70,000 Nepalese in the country. This seems less like “an unfolding tragedy” than an ongoing grotesquerie, and while FIFA is “monitoring” Qatar’s migrant worker situation, it doesn’t seem prepared to actually do anything about it.