The Men in the Middle

The Men in the Middle

If there’s an engine that continues to draw millions of workers into the Persian Gulf’s draconian labor regime, it is the middlemen—the underground network of recruitment agents that reaches into every corner of rural South Asia, dangling the possibility of a better life before communities ravaged by neoliberalism.

“Crowd of Workers.” Sketch courtesy of Molly Crabapple.*

P. Marusamy had just turned twenty-nine when I met him and his friends in early 2014 at a roadside tea shop in Govindanagaram, a bucolic village in the agricultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, India. The other men joked around a little while trading harsh stories of working overseas, but Marusamy seemed haunted by defeat. Five years ago, he had sold his family’s sole piece of property—a small plot of farmland—and borrowed $2,000 to pay the man who had promised him a lucrative job in the Middle East in exchange for a hefty fee. The man had come from Chennai, the closest metropolis, and said he represented a recruiting agency that was scouting for cooks to work for an international company in the Gulf that would pay $800 a month. Marusamy couldn’t believe his luck; his technical diploma in catering had paid off. He could repay his loan within a few months and earn enough money to buy a house in a few years. Within weeks, everything fell into place and he was on a plane to Kuwait.

But once he got there, Marusamy was shuttled to a small room holding nine other men, all weary from waiting. He spent weeks locked inside that room with no money, no job, barely any food, and no communication with his family; “it was like house arrest,” he recalled. Three months later, he was sent back home with no explanation. Soon after Marusamy’s return, his moneylender—a wealthy neighbor—accosted him and threatened to rough up his father if he didn’t pay the mounting interest on his loan. Marusamy was running out of options when the agent resurfaced and assured him that things would work out if he chose to try again. After some hesitation, Marusamy agreed. But he never saw the agent or his money again. A year later his father died from the stress of being hounded by the loan shark. Marusamy curses the day he met the agent, but adds quietly that his only hope of closing his debts is to find another job in the Gulf—through another agent. He currently makes less than $5 a day as a part-time electrician and owes his neighbor $1,500.

Unscrupulous middlemen like the agent who deceived Marusamy aren’t an anomaly; they’re the lowest rung of a remarkably successful recruitment model that for decades has drawn tens of millions of economic migrants across the Indian Ocean to fill working-class jobs in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. After the oil boom of the 1970s, the Gulf states sourced most of their labor from beyond their borders—increasingly turning to the populous nations of South Asia—and developed a carefully regulated system of migration that was designed in part to limit the rights of non-citizen workers and keep labor unrest at a minimum. Years of strikes by indigenous workers on oil installations in prior decades, like the Saudi worker-led protests in the 1940s and 1950s against the American-owned Aramco (as detailed by Robert Vitalis in his 2006 book America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier), had led the Gulf states to switch to a policy of importing foreign workers. For countries like India, with millions of its citizens working in the Gulf, the arrangement has been quite beneficial—in 2014, worker remittances from the Gulf were nearly $33 billion. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs plays a minor role in facilitating the emigration of Indian workers. By law, migrants are required to use the services of a registered recruitment agency, of which there are less than 2,000, to obtain the right documents and clearances to work in the Gulf.

In reality, however, there is a vast underground network of tens of thousands of recruitment agents, brokers, and sub-agents peddling the fantasy of the Gulf as the destination of choice. They operate in the shadows of the law, unregulated but visible everywhere: on street corners, inside the ubiquitous pawnshops, behind the enticing facades of travel agencies that promise untold riches in faraway lands, and in the suddenly lavish homes of the relative who just returned from the Gulf. They concentrate their efforts in the small towns and villages across South Asia—places that have been ravaged by the effects of neoliberal economic policies and declining public investment in agriculture. There, among the most desperate and daring, they find an eager audience for their stories of easy money and promises of a future dipped in gold.

For potential migrants, the calculus is simple. A few years of hard work in a faraway land—as a construction worker, a driver, a cook, or a domestic worker—and their modest dreams might be within reach: building a house, supporting their siblings and parents, getting married, putting their children through college, or quite simply, enjoying a brief taste of independence. But the opportunity to play the deadly migration lottery comes at a cost: typically, a few thousand dollars paid in cash to the middlemen as a “fee” for the privilege of being recruited.

The fee is crucial in introducing an element of coercion into what is an otherwise voluntary process of migration. “Everybody pays a fee, unless they are directly hired—which doesn’t happen in these low-paying jobs,” says Irudaya Rajan, a scholar at the Center for Development Studies in Kerala, India who’s tracked migration to the Gulf for two decades. “They are going to the Gulf to sell their labor, but they have to pay to sell their labor. There’s something wrong here,” he told me in January 2015. The exorbitant recruitment fee, which is almost always demanded in cash and far in excess of the legally permitted amount (less than $350 in India), plunges migrants into a vicious cycle of debt: they’re compelled to put up their meager savings as collateral and borrow large sums of cash from predatory lenders who routinely use coercion to recover their money. Ultimately, the fear of being unable to repay their debts—and the related threat of violence—can force recruits to keep working, for any wage and under any conditions, for as long as it takes to pay them off.

I traveled to the industrial suburb of Al Muhaisnah in the United Arab Emirates to discover what conditions were like for the majority of low-wage workers in the Gulf. Ruefully dubbed Sonapur (or “city of gold”) by its homesick South Asian residents, Al Muhaisnah is a city of immigrant men. The glittering spires of Dubai are a world away, reduced to ghostly silhouettes on the horizon. Rows of dilapidated apartment buildings extend in every direction and colorful laundry hangs from every window. Here, some 300,000 working-class men from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka live cheek by jowl in squalid, heavily policed quarters. Across the Gulf, these segregated enclaves are best known as labor camps.

For the men in Sonapur and other camps like it, most of their lives unfold in the dusty alleys and worksites to which they are bussed every morning, where they work for twelve to fifteen hours a day in the blazing heat to meet the insatiable desire for even more construction. Many spend years working these jobs for a variety of Gulf-based construction firms, first to pay off their debts back home, and then to try and fulfill their dreams of earning a better living. These are the men behind the gravity-defying towers shooting out of the ground in Dubai. Their labor is also responsible for building the World Cup infrastructure in Doha, the Guggenheim museum and a New York University campus on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, and the endless malls, luxury hotels, and other monuments to late capitalism that dot the oil-rich cities of this peninsula.

The vast immigrant underclass in the Persian Gulf—nearly 20 million temporary workers in construction, service, and domestic labor—lead a precarious existence shaped by a visa sponsorship system (kafala) that legally binds them to their employers. The kafala system formalizes their insecure legal status as expendable non-citizen workers with limited rights, allowing for a range of well-documented abuses: workers’ passports can be confiscated upon arrival, they can’t switch jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent, there’s no guarantee of payment, domestic workers (mostly women) are frequently sexually and physically abused, and workplace accidents and deaths are routinely hushed up. Although unionizing is largely illegal and there is no minimum wage, strikes do occur, but the punishment is swift and ruthless, often culminating in detention, deportation, and a permanent ban on returning.

If there’s an engine that continues to draw millions of workers into this draconian regime of labor control, it is the recruitment system that reaches into every corner of rural South Asia, dangling the possibility of a better life before communities beset by lack of opportunity. The uninterrupted flow of cheap and docile labor willing to work within the severely narrow landscape of rights in the Gulf would not be possible without the venal tactics of a hidden army of unregulated agents and sub-agents. Using a combination of deception and extortion they entice and coerce potential migrants to seek their fortunes in the Gulf. In the final algebra of profit, the agents themselves earn very little by skimming off the migrants’ meager savings, but by exploiting them long before they arrive at their destination, they perform a function that’s crucial to the bottom line of the ultimate employer: creating a class of workers desperate to work even for poverty wages.

South Asia has a brutal history of turning rural migrants into indentured workers and middlemen have long been at the heart of this transformation. In 1833, after slavery was abolished across the British empire, plantation owners needed a new source of workers, who would be both inexpensive and easy to control: they found a solution in British India. Over the next century, a lucrative system of indentureship mobilized millions from the famine-stricken countryside to work on an archipelago of British plantations stretching from the Caribbean to the Bay of Bengal. Foreshadowing the recruitment agents of today were colonial-era middlemen who functioned as the recruiters, overseers, and financiers of Indian migrant labor. As Sunil Amrith evocatively describes in Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013), these agents “unmoored the countryside” using a combination of “inducement, coercion, and above all debt to mobilize workers in South India, and then to immobilize them on the plantations of Ceylon or Malaya.”

Recruiters were powerful, well-known figures in rural communities and they both predated and outlasted the British system of indenture that came to an end in 1917. They were variously known as sardar, kangany, or maistry depending on which part of British India they operated in, and whether they recruited people under contracts of indenture or as “free” labor, using ties of kinship and debt to recruit workers. This epic movement of men (and later, women) rested on a central deception—the fantasy of escaping poverty—and relied on the coercive apparatus of debt to enforce the subservience of workers. On the plantations, the rights, freedoms, and mobility of workers were further regulated and restricted by legal measures in line with the financial interests of the British empire.

If the British transported workers from India around the world to support imperial expansion on its plantation economies and railway projects, almost a century later, the United States found itself looking to the same source of labor to support its military forays in the Middle East. As the United States embarked on expensive military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractors in Washington turned to the Gulf for inspiration on how to find the cheapest, most subservient laborers to work on U.S. military bases. Gulf-based companies with decades of experience in recruiting migrant labor for the service, construction, logistics, and security industries were only too eager to offer their expertise and get a share of the Pentagon’s bloated wartime contracting budget.

Over the past decade, contractors and subcontractors have earned billions of dollars providing half a million Asian migrant workers, primarily from India, Nepal, and the Philippines, to perform the menial tasks in American war zones that soldiers will no longer do: cooking, cleaning, laundry, construction, and base security. Employing these workers—an invisible support army with no domestic political constituency—has allowed Washington to keep troop numbers and casualty figures artificially low. Over the years, prompted by worker unrest and some media attention, conditions for workers have somewhat improved on the bases. But the very first phase of their exploitation—the manner in which they were recruited—has not changed, and they continue to be hired through the same extortionary system that supplies labor to the Gulf countries.

On a U.S. military base I visited in northern Afghanistan in December 2013, most of the workers were rural migrants from India and Nepal. The cooks spent twelve hours a day preparing and serving meals to hungry American soldiers: roast beef, turkey, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, and pasta. As they put up Christmas decorations in the dining hall under the watchful gaze of a U.S. commander, they spoke in hushed tones of fees paid to agents, threats made by loan sharks, and the pressures of working in a war zone. Everyone was deep in debt.

One man in his mid-twenties, I’ll call him Ravi, had worked for the Americans in Iraq and now Afghanistan for nearly six years. He’d lost several thousand dollars over the years, most recently, $4,000 to an agent who promised him a job with a U.S. military subcontractor (Ecolog) that would pay $1,200 a month. Eager to get married soon, he borrowed the full amount from a local moneylender who set the interest rate at 35 percent: “a special migrant rate,” he was told with a smile, “because you will come back a rich man.” Ravi was flown to Dubai, a frequent stopping point for workers en route to Afghanistan. There, another recruiter for the same subcontractor told him the only available job would pay $500. Weighed down by his high-interest loan, he agreed, and spent the next year paying back the moneylender. When he tried to complain to his supervisors on the base, they said they weren’t responsible for promises made during his recruitment, and besides, he had already signed a contract agreeing to $500.

“We never expected this from the U.S. military,” said Rajesh Kumar, a soft-spoken man from rural Tamil Nadu. He recounted to me his experiences of being forced to spend several weeks in Dubai, locked in a small, dirty room with dozens of other men and barely any food or water, waiting for his promised job with a subcontractor named Renaissance to materialize. “I noticed that the only people who got called for an interview were those who arranged to pay the recruiters even more money,” he said bitterly. Rajesh had to threaten to kill himself to get their attention and finally be sent to Afghanistan to begin working.

Every story has a villain, and in the accounts of the dozens of current and former workers on U.S. military bases I spoke to, the conclusion was unanimous: it was always the recruiting agent they hated the most. I got a glimpse into the world of middlemen when a Dubai-based agent who claimed to have recruited 9,000 workers from India and Nepal for two U.S. military subcontractors in Afghanistan (Ecolog and Supreme Group) agreed to meet me in Dubai. A brash young man from Nepal, Bishnu Pandey started his “manpower consulting” company over a decade ago in Kathmandu and now employs hundreds of agents and sub-agents, not just in Nepal, but also in India and Sri Lanka. “We have to mix up the nationalities of workers, otherwise they might go on strike and we’ll be very badly affected,” he said. His gold chain and ring glinted in the afternoon light as he explained that on paper, subcontractors are supposed to pay him $300 for each worker he recruits for them. “But in fact they are not paying us anything, that is just for show for their main contractor,” he added. In reality, he routinely bribes their representatives to hire workers from his candidate pool. He doesn’t need to be paid by subcontractors for supplying them with labor: he makes all his money from the fees his network of agents collect from migrants and he’s happy to pass some of that up the chain—under the table, of course.

Sam McCahon, a former federal prosecutor and expert on government contracts I met in Kerala, India, calls recruiting agents like Pandey human traffickers, citing the deception and coercion involved in enticing migrants with false promises of high salaries, extorting large amounts of money from them, forcing them into debt, and then compelling them to work to pay off their debts. In September 2012, President Obama outlawed the payment of recruitment fees to work on U.S. military installations. But in a 2014 investigation for Al Jazeera I found evidence that the practice continues unabated. Almost every one of the seventy-five workers I spoke to said they had paid illegal recruitment fees to get their jobs. The companies they worked for, DynCorp International, Fluor, Ecolog, and Supreme Group, simply denied any connection to human trafficking or forced labor, claiming zero tolerance for such practices. Prompted by my report, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction led by John F. Sopko has also initiated investigations into these four military contractors and subcontractors (the results of which are still forthcoming). But there’s little political will to hold private contractors accountable and the record isn’t comforting: so far no one has ever been prosecuted, suspended, or even fined for trafficking abuses on U.S. military contracts.

There’s simply too much money at stake. The U.S. military guarantees its prime defense contractors, many of which are conveniently headed and staffed by former generals, a fixed profit of about 6 percent on the subcontractor’s charges—whatever they may be—as long as they can prove they were the lowest bidder. “American contractors make more profit off this process than if they hire the workers directly,” McCahon told me, which, he argues, effectively encourages the system of using extortionary recruiters and indebted workers. Meanwhile, subcontractors can easily pocket most of what they charge the prime contractor—millions of dollars—by paying the migrant workers a pittance. Almost everyone profits off this system; the recruiter, the head agent, the subcontractor, and the prime contractor. Everyone, that is, except the worker who spends most of the money he earns to cover the debts he incurred by paying the recruiter.

The mass movement of men and women across the seas may be motivated by the search for a better life, but the grim calculus of survival that forces them to work for any wage at all—whether for a construction company or as a domestic worker in the Gulf, or for a catering company on a U.S. military base—would not be possible without the middlemen and the crushing weight of debt they help impose. Middlemen are a fundamental part of global supply chains that depend on illegal recruitment practices to exploit migrants even before they leave their homes. Entrapment through extortion and debt has been an essential feature of this business model—from India under British colonial rule to multiple sectors of contemporary Gulf economies and U.S. military bases in the Middle East—which relies on a continuous flow of inexpensive and exploitable migrant labor. Middlemen also provide a convenient alibi for those who stand to gain the most from this system; if and when prime contractors at the top of the supply chain are accused of human trafficking or forced labor, for example, they could easily escape accountability by blaming the mass of unregulated, untraceable middlemen at the bottom. The middlemen who deceive and defraud workers are therefore not just flaws in the system, but the hidden levers that set it in motion.

Anjali Kamat is a presenter for Fault Lines, a current affairs documentary program on Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera America. Some of the research for this essay is from a Fault Lines investigation she reported, “America’s War Workers,” which first broadcast in March 2014.


*In May 2014 I visited Abu Dhabi to do a feature for Vice on the conditions of workers building the Louvre and the Guggenheim. I drew this image from life in a labor camp in Mafraq, Jordan. These camps are more like cities. Tens of thousands of workers might live in apartment blocks, isolated deep in the desert. A local journalist brought me to Mafraq on Friday, since it was the workers’ day off.
—Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York. Her memoir, Drawing Blood, will be published by HarperCollins in November 2015.