Qatar World Cup | Empire and Slavery

The decision to play the 2022 in Qatar in Winter has  attracted a lot of controversy – it is a a small authoritarian state with no previous interest in football, rampant misogyny and brutal homophobia.  

Giving the World Cup to Qatar would be like giving it to Putin’s Russia or Mussolini’s Italy.   Except they did that too. 

A lot of the controversy has been about the kafala system – the use of migrant workers, mainly from India and neighbouring countries that is essentially bonded Labour – workers can only worker for the employer they are bonded to, and can’t leave and work for another employer even if working conditions are unsafe, or they don’t get paid.

No-one is quite sure how many people have died building the stadiums or infrastructure for the tournament 

Bonded Labour isn’t the same as slavery but it is still unfree Labour, and unacceptable,.  Being nearly as bad as slavery is still awful.  I thought I would write a short history of bonded labour, and the rather sad role that Britain has to play in it. 

Bonded Labour or indentured servants existed for a long time in the British Empire alongside slavery.   In fact when we introduced unfree labour into our colonies we didn’t start with black africans, we started with poor white people.

Right across the UK small farms were modernised into large estates, creating a surplus rural population.  In Ireland this was called the plantation system and the surplus population was shipped to the Americas as bonded Labour.  In England is was called the enclosure of the common land, and anyone who argued with having their land and livestock taken by the aristocracy were sent to Australia as criminals.   In Scotland it was the Highland Clearances, and the surplus population went to places like Canada as indentured servants.  

But this wasn’t enough to feed the demand for captive labour- there was a limit to how many poor white people could be forced to work like this without creating the condition for a revolution and a legal limit how long you could work them for at the other end.   Eric Williams, the great Caribbean historian argues that we didn’t start with racism and turn that into slavery – we started with an economic imperative for unfree labour and created racism to justify it.  The process of turning small farmers off the land to make big industrial scale agriculture was no less brutal in the British isles as it was in Russia under Stalin or Romania under Ceausescu. 

When we ran short of poor white people to work for free the easy and inevitable solution to this was slavery.  Britain didn’t invent slavery.   It started in the Spanish and Porguese overseas empires in the C16th.  Spain and Portugal had conquered the Americas and in the process killed millions.  They needed new workers to replace the ones they killed and they started importing slaves from Africa.  

By 1600 British plantation owners in the Caribbean started buying salves from the Spanish, and by 1630 the first slaves arrived in our North American colonies.  

The rest is history.  3m people trafficked illegally into slavey in one of the greatest crimes against humanity

At the same time the British East India company was taking over the Indian sub-continent

One of the questions which always puzzled me about the British Empire was if slavery was so lucrative why didn’t we enslave Indians as well as Africans?

The easy answer is that we didn’t need to.

India has a caste system which organised society along similar lines to feudal England – the poor worked on the land of the rich and powerful as bonded labourers.   We didn’t need to go to all of the expensive infrastructure of slavery – ships, guards, whips and chains, because local Indian rulers were already doing something very similar already.  We just outsourced the brutal bits, and cashed the cheques.

Slavery came to and end around the end of the C18th.  The Somerset judgement, the Zong massacre and the Wilberforce Act brought the cruellest practice to a stop

Britain flourished in its abolition.  Partly this was because the lack of slave labour made us invest more in technology which made us a global super power.  But also we were adept at taking the capital from other countries on the way and adding it to our own which made C19th British capitalism a world beater

But our addiction to unfree labour didn’t end with slavery.   We replaced Black slaves with Indian bonded labourers- wherever the British Empire made money we took Indian workers who had no choice but to work for us.   The Indian populations of the Caribbean and South Africa were created in the space of a few decades as we used Indian serfs to replace our Black Slaves.   If you see Roti and Curry on the menu of a Jamaican restaurant, or Chandrapaul opening the batting for the West Indies it is the legacy of that grim industry.   Ghandi made his name as lawyer fighting for the Asian community in South Africa.  

It wasn’t just the British Empire who indulged in unfree Asian labour.   The US abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment after the civil war.   As black labour slowly achieved emancipation they were replaced by Chinese coolies.  This was particularly prevalent in parts of the US like California which never had slavery to begin with

If you have vague memories of the TV show Kung Fu with David Carradine as Grasshopper  – the Kung Fu warrior in Cowboy America  – now you understand the plot, such as it was

The use of Indian bonded labour continued in the British Empire until the end of World War One.   The Liberal Government outlawed it after the war.   

But at the same time the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Britain gained a new, semi-formal Empire. We ruled Gulf States and what is now Israel and Palestine from WW1 onwards, the rest of the Arab lands were divided up into French and British spheres of influence under the Sykes-Picot treaty.  Israel and Palestine became independent in 1947, but Britain only finally gave up it’s role in the Gulf in 1971.   The British and French spheres of influence are now US and Russian.  

And while the use of Indian bonded Labour ended in the formal Empire, it continued in the mandates states.  The oil rich Arab states imported Indian bonded labour in increasing numbers as they got richer and dreamed up bigger and more expensive infrastructure projects.

An illegal labour practice that we outlawed in our own lands a century ago lives on in the Gulf where it builds football stadiums, and in India where they make goods for Western markets.

This isn’t meant to be a long attack on the British Empire.  We did bad things a long time ago, and it is shocking to see some of the worst aspects of Empire carrying on into the modern world.   

But it is also an example of how we are able to turn a blind eye to widespread unfree labour even in a world as interconnected as our own.  

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