- Jordan Maharjan
European Hypocrisy: A Deeper Understanding of Europe’s Exploitative History
Photo Credit: CrossFire KM
As the Qatar World Cup announced its 22nd winner of the tournament—drawing 5 billion viewers to the games as history was made. Although remembered for its captivating games and unexpected winners, the World Cup will also serve as a reminder of the huge price migrant [particularly South Asian] workers had to pay for international commemoration. The unforgettable 22nd World Cup hosted by an Arab country has shined a light on the Middle Eastern exploitative labour structure that we must not forget.
The Western world has not been shy to call out Qatar for its exploitation of South Asian and African migrants, and its backward’ governance on social issues like women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. However, the West has a history of hypocrisy. Empires of the West mobilised international domination from the subjection of slave labour and indentured servitude to stealing land and its valuable resources across the continents. The Occident has been renowned for proclaiming itself as a hub of ‘progressive’ values, economic development, and technological advancement. Therefore, as the Middle East follows the seemingly European development trajectory, it is illogical for the Arab Gulf to be hounded by Western criticism whilst failing to acknowledge its own exploitative history.
European criticism of the Middle Eastern’s trajectory of development can be deemed as illogical when considering its own exploitative history.
Empire and Exploitation
For centuries, European civilisation has been viewed as the ‘pinnacle’ of development. Even so, the reason for the West’s position in the international sphere is rooted in colonialism, a dark history of violence and looting.
The British empire covered a quarter of the earth’s landmass and dominated more than 20% of the world’s population at its peak 20% of the world’s population. It’s safe to say that the Sun never truly set in Empire. As history's biggest empire, Britain controlled countries such as India, Canada, Australia, Nigeria, and Egypt—this was just a small number of the many territories they had. India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, was one of Britain’s most valuable colonies. Formerly known as the ‘British Raj’, this territory encompassed most of South Asia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and underpinned Britain’s colonial economy.
India became Britain’s more exploited territory in their empire and the country was looted an innumerable number of times in history. However, it was British rule that succeeded in starving the country as never before. This was observed in how India, as a colony, was structurally linked with the world capitalist system for imperialist exploitation.
British Empire at its Peak
Photo Credit: Washington Post
The British rulers' manipulation of import and export duties to destroy the supremacy of Indian goods, such as cotton and silk fabrics, allowing British goods to penetrate the Indian market. By doing so, between 1813 and 1858, India experienced the classic age of free-trader industrial capitalist exploitation, converting them into a market for Manchester textiles and a source of raw materials, uprooting her traditional handicrafts. Thus, as the British Industrial Revolution marked a pivotal point in the Western economic trajectory, it turned out to be an evil for the Indian native cotton industry which had now to fight the competition from British imported machine-made goods. The once-booming handicraft industries were ruthlessly killed, converting India into a reservoir of cheap raw materials like cotton, tea, indigo, and coffee.
A new capitalist class was created, enabled to take advantage of new economic opportunities because the Indian markets were controlled by the British colonisers for the British capitalist class. As a result, a monopoly was created by the British colonisers funnelling all profits to the metropolitan hub of the empire, London. This allowed Britain to further their own economic advancements, as real GDP per person almost doubled in the 90 years between 1780-1870 when it reached $3263, which was one-third greater than the United States and more than 70% more than both France and Germany. Not only, but the British empire also became the World’s largest economy, enabling them to become the largest and strongest international body the world has ever seen.
Drawing on nearly two centuries of detailed data on tax and trade, Britain drained an eye-watering of almost $45 trillion from India during the period 1765-1938.
Photo Credit: Irish Times. Photo of starving Indians and a British military post - 1897 - exemplify British Empire and its effects on India.
Additionally, given the precarious situation, India was forced to look beyond its borders in search of work and a better life. However, the hegemonic nature of the British empire sought to exploit further those who migrated to other regions through indentured servitude.
The abolition of slavery in 1834 paved the path toward indentured servitude and the number of South Asian [particularly Indian] workers increased to fill the void of slave labour. During that time Indian indentured labourers were imported to the West Indies (the Caribbean), Mauritius, and Fiji.
Indentured servitude thrived as an exploitative system as many Indians were fleeing poverty and famine in their motherland, a by-product of British involvement. People were victims of the indentured system and recruited under the false pretence of a ‘better’ life and transported to the new world, bound by the employer. As a result, countries such as Guyana were the recipient of 239,000 East Indian migrants, Trinidad received 144,000 and Jamaica found itself with 36,000 migrants.
Indian indentured workers typically worked on sugar plantation farms. While the system was viewed as a 'progressive' alternative to slavery, the conditions they worked in were comparable to slavery. The ultimate difference between slavery and indentured servitude was that indentured workers were not viewed as property.
Photo Credit: striking-women.org. Female Indentured Servants from South Asia.
An agreement known as Girmitiya outlined a period of five years of labour in the colonies with pay of 8 rupees per month (about USD$4 in 1826). In many cases, they were not paid but instead housed. Alongside this, many were forced to work long periods of time of up to 9 hours a day in tropical heat, with physical punishments attached for not performing ‘well’. This resulted in many dying before their contract was over, a great deal of workers fleeing, and those who were caught fleeing were forced to extend their contract.
Furthermore, it comes as no surprise that the physical conditions that labourers endured on plantation farms led to the annual 12% mortality rate of Jamaica in 1970, whilst profit made in Jamaica on the plantation farms reached as high as 14.8%. This allowed Britain to become a huge exporter of sugar, hailing itself as the ‘sweetshop of Europe’.
The Middle East
In recent decades, the Middle East has experienced unprecedented economic growth. With its newfound abundance of oil reserves and the exploitation of migrant workers, the Gulf is following in the footsteps of its European counterparts.
This has been exemplified through the Arab World’s ‘Kafala System’. Essentially the Kafala system is a strictly Arabic system which is a legal framework that has defined the relationship between workers across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), encompassing Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Operating for almost half a century, the 1970s economic oil boom of the Arab gulf saw South Asia as its prime target for labour.
The Kafala system operates by providing work for South Asian migrants who seek to provide for their families, and by doing so, they receive visas and residence permits, but only if a GCC citizen or GCC institutions employ them. Effectively, the sponsor is known as a ‘kafeel’ and will assume full economic and legal responsibility for the employee. This ties the employer and employee into an unequal relationship, where the employer holds the power.
Photo Credit: Japan Times. Migrant workers watch the World Cup match between Brazil and Switzerland on a big screen at a large cricket stadium on the outskirts of Doha.
There have been cases of migrants’ passports being taken from them once they begin working, and although it is not prescribed in many legal systems such as Kuwait, the Ministry of Interior strongly recommends this practice, suggesting an interesting dark underbelly of the Kuwait government to encourage a practice that attempts to essentially ‘trap’ migrants. Not only this, although a contract can be broken on behalf of either party, if the employee breaks the contract, they are forced to fund their journey home placing workers in a very precarious situation. This is due to the fact many are drowning in debt because of the recruitment agencies' fees and many do not want to go back empty-handed to their families.
This experience has shown that most migrant workers are prepared to endure hardships than face the consequences of the exploitative system. This issue has been highlighted in recent months during the build of Qatar’s World Cup.
Qatar has been at the end of constant backlash and condemnation from the West. The Kafala played a significant role in the construction of stadiums and the amenities the footballers and their fans enjoyed. South Asian workers have been the most prominent victims of the system. For example, many have been forced to face the Middle Eastern’s intense summer heat, enduring long exposure to unbearable temperatures for four months of the year. As a result, the harsh conditions were one of the most significant reasons for many migrant deaths, totalling almost 6500 deaths from those who came from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka since Qatar announced its right to host the World Cup.
The exploitative system has enabled recruitment agencies to lure people in on the false pretence that they would earn a steady income, yet one worker was promised US$300 a month in Nepal but turned out to be US$190 once he began working in Qatar. Even raising questions risks the removal of their Visa, being forced to encounter the cost of the return ticket, and failure to pay back their debt.
Therefore, as we draw parallels between indentured servitude and the Kafala system, there is a clear view that the Middle East is following the Western trajectory of development. As both systems operate on a global scale—focusing on exploiting labour in the Indian Subcontinent—it lures into a false pretence of the abundance of opportunities and the steady income that is to be earned whilst working. However, turning into a living nightmare for many, South Asian migrants continue to be exploited in the global system, forced to endure prolonged and strenuous labour, and punished for falling out of line. This course of development continues to be the European mould that the emerging world is following.
Furthermore, another example of the Middle East following the European trajectory of development is through land exploitation. Britain decimated India’s natural resources and their ability to grow and create its own goods. This [consequently] transformed the subcontinent into a reservoir of cheap raw material. The Middle East followed suit through intense oil extraction and increased levels of emissions.
The Middle East has become a “dominant emitter” of greenhouse gases globally due to its extensive extraction and use of crude oil. Aramco is the state-owned Saudi Arabian oil and gas company that is the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitter. They are estimated to be responsible for over 4% of the entire world’s GHG emissions since 1965. Additionally, these estimates have shown that Aramco planned to produce the equivalent of 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2018 and 2030.
Saudi’s neighbour, Qatar [a gas-rich country] had the highest carbon emission per capita as of 2019, followed by the rest of the Arab Gulf [Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates].
Photo Credit: NS Energy Business
Saudi Arabia has committed to becoming a net-zero nation by 2060, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stating the Gulf would invest more than US$180 million to reach the goal. Additionally, the United States and the UAE signed a memorandum last month that aims to mobilise US$100 billion on clean energy projects. However, to see these plans come to fruition is a waiting game, and the world is observing closely the small likelihood of the Arab Gulf hitting the Paris Climate Agreement Targets, given both the UAE and Saudi Arabia as ‘highly insufficient’ for hitting net zero.
Many citizens of the Western hemisphere would agree to call out the Arab Gulf for its exploitative labour measures and fossil fuel obliteration. However, many fail to understand the harsh history of their European empires that lead to the way to these practices. Likewise to the Kafala system, Europe—through its enslavement of African people and indentured servitude—became the backbone of the empire's booming economy, draining Africa’s and Asia’s labour force, placing citizens into abusive, and brutal work in plantation farms.
Furthermore, the extreme extraction of raw materials in the Indian Subcontinent and its heavy reliance on fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution served to create Europe we know today. The European metropolis has a history of hypocrisy, calling out the Middle East for following the same trajectory that shaped Europe made from the backs of Brown and Black people and the decimation of land and its resources, engineering climate change. The self-proclaimed Occident of advancement and development must acknowledge the system they put into place, by understanding the huge flaws that have allowed gaps for exploitation and engaging in bilateral talks before criticising the Arab states for its exploitation.