From Mauritania to Qatar: Slavery an Old Evil Takes Many Forms

Biram Ould Dah Abeid

By Andre Johnson, Urban News Service

Incredibly in the 21st century some Africans are still working in conditions akin to slavery informally or formally in some areas of the Middle East. In Mauritania slavery, though officially illegal, remains a fact of life for an estimated 40,000 enslaved people. Like slavery in the antebellum South there is a racial component. The Haratine ethnic group, who make up 40% of the country’s population, are the entirety of its slave population. 

Mauritania, a country with a population of 4 million, is rarely mentioned in international media coverage. It became the last country to ban slavery in the world in 1983. However, the practice has lingered down to the present since and in 2007, the practice was criminalized. Since then only one criminal conviction has taken place. Often living in near starvation conditions (one journalist reported seeing children eating sand) enslaved people have to also deal with the most hurtful forms of abuse.

“Female slaves, both women and girls were routinely subjected to rape by their masters and forced to bear their children,” reads the 2017 U.S. State Department report on Mauritania. “There were cases in the past where female slaves attempted to prosecute their master. State prosecutors told victims that they could face charges for having children out of wedlock, using children produced from rape as a deterrent to prosecuting slavery.”  

No labor situation has attracted the attention of labor groups than that of the workers building the stadiums and supporting infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

An investigation released by The Guardian in November found that African guest workers from Ghana were forced to work for paltry salaries in the richest countries in the world. “For building one of the prestige stadiums designed so Qatar can dazzle the world in 2022, eight hours a day, six days a week, this is £140, a little under £35 per week; £5 per day.” That is roughly equivalent to $6.36 a day. There is no formal minimum wage in the country.

Qatar has also built a vast Labor City including some recreational facilities behind high walls and railings for those working on its World Cup stadiums. “[There are] 18,000 workers building the stadiums – less than 2% of Qatar’s construction workforce,” says Ahmed Benchemsi, the Middle East spokesperson for Human Rights Watch.

An investigation published by Lebanese newspaper Daily Star detailed how Bangladeshi guest workers had been largely abandoned in a labor camp when their project was put on hold. Two meals a day were donated from a Qatari charity, but the site had no running water or electricity most hours of the day.

Despite a recent labor reform domestic staff who fear abuse must still get the permission of their employers to leave the country. Families who employ such workers often site potential thefts as one of the reasons they should control the movement of their guest workers. Much of the labor issues surrounding Qatar also apply to its neighboring states in the region.   

The Qatari government has pledged to align its laws and practices with international labor standards,” says Benchemsi, “through a program of cooperation with the International Labor Organization. However, the implementation of the promised reforms is taking a lot of time and the government hasn’t published a timetable.” 

The 2018 FIFA World Cup put much attention on human rights in Russia. Maybe the hosting of the 2020 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will bring much needed human rights attention to wider region.


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