Making ‘Modern Day Slavery’ Go Viral

The video opens: “I was 9-years-old when I first saw a maid being beaten by her employer. I still remember how she cried as her hair was pulled and she was violently punched in the chest.”

“I frequently see housemaids, men’s health some of them as young as 15, being yelled at and called racist names by their employers.”

“Headline after horrifying headline: ‘Maid Commits Suicide’, ‘Construction Workers Starved to Death’, ‘Maid Beaten’, ‘Driver Killed’, yet little is being done about it.”

“Migrant workers in the Middle East are undervalued, exploited and denied basic human rights… There have literally been hundreds of thousands of cases of unpaid salaries… This amounts to modern day slavery, and it makes me feel depressed and helpless, but most of all ashamed, that this has been taking place year after year right in my very neighborhood.”

“While so many of us have turned blind eyes to this situation, we have a collective responsibility to these people. Someone must speak up and fight on their behalf, and that someone is us.”

Such is the narration to a daring video put out by the folks over at Migrant Rights, a grassroots Middle Eastern youth campaign which uses the Internet “to raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers in the Middle East and encourage social action to end the violations of their human rights and dignity.”

Migrant workers make up the ‘invisible majority’ in many Middle Eastern countries, particularly Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi).

While international organizations put out literally dozens of reports each year on the oppression of migrant workers in the Middle East, they tend to focus on the lack of government oversight into migrant laborers’ working conditions, their lack of legal rights and changes needed in laws related to migrant workers.

Speaking about racism and the treatment of foreigners in the Middle East is locally taboo, and it’s difficult to express just how controversial and daring the local production of such a video is.

Directed by Esra’a Al Shafei, founder and executive director of Mideast Youth, the video is up for a Viral Video Award, and is the only one in the running with a social action message. Vote here. caught up with Esra’a to discuss the role of new media campaigns in fighting racism in the Middle East. Part of the reason this video was controversial, was the critique that it absolves Middle Eastern governments of their responsibilities to protect migrant workers. Your take?

Esra’a Al Shafei: We have been documenting and reporting a growing collection of evidence of migrant worker abuses in the Middle East since 2007, and as a regional movement we have won some successes with governments. Through this experience we have witnessed two things: the first is that a change in policy does not translate to actual change. The second is that migrant workers suffer not just from lack of legal rights, but also from widespread and sometimes violent racism.

The governments’ negligence and failure to effectively apply any legal rights to the workers is far from the only problem. Even if the governments introduce new laws to protect workers, people will still feel the liberty to abuse them, knowing that the likelihood of them getting away with it is high. In other words, we are not just fighting against government policies, we are also fighting against societal oppression.

I grew up in this environment, and to this day I witness this abuse firsthand. I knew I had to do something to express the urgency of this situation to average people who don’t read the newspaper every day or visit our website. Why a video, why not a petition or the many other tactics available for reaching the public?

Esra’a Al Shafei: People are responsive to creativity. An animation for migrant rights in the Middle East was never attempted before. It was time to experiment with this method. We decided that the best way to do so was through narration and not simply documentation of specific cases, because I wanted to first target average people who are not activists. I wanted to say look, it doesn’t hurt to take action. It hurts when you sit by and watch the abuse happen silently around you. It was a more personal approach, something people here can relate to. It was daring of you to make a video like this. What has the reaction been?

Esra’a Al Shafei: We have received a lot of negative feedback for the video, particularly in the Middle East. A lot of people are in denial that migrant workers are going through this, and that there is racism in our societies.

On the other hand, since the video was released we’ve gotten hundreds of requests from people all over the region who contacted us and said ‘How can I help?’ So this was rather encouraging for us. More importantly, we received information from people abroad whose relatives work in the Gulf, as they wanted to see if we had any information about them. We forwarded these requests to local, on-the-ground organizations who do work on a case-by-case basis. What can folks outside the Middle East do to help?

Esra’a Al Shafei: A lot of these violations are centered in the Gulf states, which are very responsive to foreign criticism. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, etc – all these countries are obsessed with PR and care very much what the rest of the world thinks of them. That’s how they get foreign investors and expats to come here. So if people want to get involved, the best way is pushing the information out. It really helps for internationals to write to them and just simply tell them “Hey, we know how you are treating foreign workers in your country. It is abysmal and must stop.”

You can also blog about the video, share it, share information about suicides, rape and living conditions of migrant workers in the Middle East. Our site is actively exposing these human rights violations. We also have a database containing information on local NGOs who are tracking these issues, and a resources page where people can see how they can really help out with the campaign. Some of these local NGOs require financial assistance, for things such as helplines, lawyers and shelters. Any help would be appreciated. Do petitions help?

Esra’a Al Shafei: Yes, sometimes we write a petition, for example protesting the disturbing number of suicides amongst domestic workers in Kuwait. However we do not live in democracies, and it is increasingly rare that these petitions work. But it is imperative to let them know that we are aware and disgusted by these incredible injustices. For every campaign we run, we make it clear that these human rights abuses have only gotten worse in the past few decades.

Do something. We have an extremely long way to go.

GOT A TIP FOR US? Is there a story or campaign in your area that we’d want to know about? E-mail us at Please also follow’s Human Rights page on Facebook and Twitter. Photo credit: Mideast Youth