The term ‘human trafficking’  conjures up images of a shady underworld of forced prostitution, unpaid hard labor and child abuse.
But many in the Gulf region may unknowingly be guilty of trafficking for seemingly less extreme activities, one expert has warned.
Those who ask domestic maids to work long hours or wash their cars in uncomfortable weather conditions are technically guilty of human trafficking violations, said Iman Ereiqat, the chief of mission at the International Organization of Migration (IoM) in Kuwait. 
“So many people do not know these actions fall under trafficking,” Ereiqat told Al Arabiya News.
“To let a domestic worker clean your car, it’s not her job. She’s a domestic cleaner. It’s not her job to go at 6 o’ clock in the morning when it’s winter… to go outside and clean your car.”
There are more than two million people employed as domestic workers in the Gulf region, according to widely circulated estimates. Not all are victims, Ereiqat said. But many are vulnerable to a range of abuses she categorizes under ‘human trafficking’.
“Making the domestic worker to work for seven days, not giving her a day off... holding their passports, not paying the salaries on time, and of course sexual abuse and physical abuse – this is serious human trafficking,” she said.
Ereiqat cited a U.N. definition of human trafficking, which pointed to factors such as ‘abuse of power or vulnerability’ and ‘exploitation’ as indicators of trafficking. But there are many different interpretations of what constitutes trafficking.
Speaking at an IoM event in Kuwait on the role of media in combating trafficking, Ereiqat pointed to the need to increase awareness of the issue.
“In the whole Arab region, there is a huge unawareness of what exactly human trafficking is. People think, if they have a domestic worker, ‘I’m providing her with food and a room, she is living ok’. But it is not ok. This is why we are trying to educate them. She is a worker and she has full rights to certain working hours, to have one day off, to keep hold of her passport, to get her salary on time.”
Ereiqat told Al Arabiya News about regional countries’ efforts to combat trafficking.
Q&A with Iman Ereiqat, the chief of mission at the International Organization of Migration in Kuwait Q. What is the awareness of human trafficking on a regional level? Many people do not really know what human trafficking means , especially in the Arab region. The old story of human trafficking is slavery – kidnapping people across the borders and using them as slaves. That was one part of human trafficking. Now the broad title, which was approved by the U.N. back in 2000, defined clearly what human trafficking means, and actually covers all the abuse of labor, the working conditions, the long working hours. Holding passports and abusing the labor goes under ‘human trafficking’ because you are having the upper authority [over] this person. You are not allowing him to move.
I’m not saying that all the domestic workers have bad situations. But we are trying to enhance the working style of these domestic workers in the region by doing awareness campaigns for sponsors, for the employers, to understand that if you do this or behave like this, this goes under human trafficking. There are more than 15 million [temporary contractual] laborers in the GCC. And a good number of them are domestic workers.
Q. Do you know what proportion of those are victims of human trafficking?
Honestly speaking, no one can give you those statistics. And this is our huge challenge. Because the lack of information, the lack of registration of these cases, and also the hesitance of the victims to go and file complaints – this won’t help us to give you a real statistic. So no one call tell you.
Q. Kuwait passed an anti-trafficking law last year. But according to U.S. government data, the country is still falling behind in tackling the problem. Is it doing enough?
The Kuwaiti authorities are very very cooperative with our projects. They funded, they supported; they are always there. And whenever we discuss an issue they jump in to support. But frankly speaking, you cannot change a culture just like that. And you cannot even change a problem by just putting in rules all of a sudden.
We are trying to qualify national [officers] to train them on human rights, counter-trafficking, and the issue of labor in Kuwait. Because frankly speaking this is the main thing Kuwait faces criticism against it. Otherwise they are doing a great job, honestly speaking. But laborers and domestic laborers is making the records of Kuwait kind of greyish. But with our partnership with them, hopefully we will improve the working conditions, the life conditions, of all these laborers in the country.
We are planning to do – and hopefully we will succeed – a very good idea in partnership with the Ministry of Affairs to give training for the mosque speakers, to give speeches on the Friday prayer to give them awareness on human trafficking. Q. When do you think Kuwait’s ranking by the U.S. Trafficking in Human Persons (TIP)  report may improve?
They have conditions that any government should provide cases of their citizens that they were sent to court for violating human trafficking. The Americans keep saying that the Kuwaitis did not yet provide any of these issues. To me the Kuwaiti authorities are really working very hard at least to improve. But as I said, with bureaucracy everywhere around the world, you do not expect things to change in a day or a night.
Q. To what extent is the current labor sponsorship system in most Gulf countries impacting human trafficking?
Here comes the abuse of the sponsors towards the laborers. The condition of the sponsorship is that each laborer thinks, ‘he is my employer and he is my sponsor – so where is the way out?’ And if [the employer] is holding his or her passport, where to go? And if you focus on the domestic laborer issues, it is worse, because they are behind closed doors, they are inside the houses and no one inspects them. Most of them are not really educated, so they do not know how to act and seek assistance. So that’s what makes their conditions even worse.
In Kuwait, I don’t think there’s any human rights violation except in the labor issues. Otherwise things here are really much better. If there’s no development of the sponsorship system, by allowing the sponsorship system not only giving rights for the employer, but giving equal rights to the employee… it will continue having a violation of human rights.
Q. Qatar has also faced questions over its labor record, especially given the upcoming World Cup in 2022…
They are trying really to develop and improve day and night. We encourage them always to be faster in improving the laws. But I believe that they are not on the bad side, they are doing a good job.
By Ben Flanagan