This article was originally published at Lapido Media.
Migrant workers long abandoned to slave-like conditions in the Arabian Gulf have found an unlikely weapon in their fight against exploitation: hackers.
Young Arab computer geeks are creatively helping vulnerable foreign labourers break into a culture that either ignores or abuses them.
Last April New York University Abu Dhabi hosted the fourth annual Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World at their campus in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
More than 150 top university students from seventeen countries competed to design practical apps to innovate solutions for social problems, during a three-day marathon.
An app called Guide Me won the Audience Choice Award, aiming to inform migrants of their rights in law. It also monitors abuse.
26-year-old Mona Demaidi, a mentor from Palestine and a lead programmer for the app is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester in the UK. ‘Our region needs transparency,’ she told Lapido Media. ‘This project will give data and facts, as we don’t have access to information. And here, it will change lives.’
With a team of eight students she helped create a system to log calls to a central database from a free helpline to record and track complaints about abuse.
All audio, it will operate in twelve different languages, providing labour law and feedback options for anonymous or on-the-record complaints.
Information is also available on a website, to be accessed from a kiosk at every labour camp.
‘We’re not coming from the West dictating what the problem is and what the solution should be,’ said Sana Odeh, the NYU professor and organizing force. ‘These must come from the students. The power of a hackathon is to unleash students’ skills and connect them to the world.’
And though the younger generation is different, there is a significant gap to overcome.
‘We always want to hide our problems, we don’t want to talk about them,’ Demaidi said. ‘But the information collected will be good for the workers, good for the companies, and good for the government.’
According to the Pew Research Center, the Arabian Gulf is home to fifteen million migrant workers, the majority from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
In the UAE they make up 84 per cent of the population, the highest rate in the world. Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain follow next on the list.
One link between these workers, the Hackathon, and the government is Anglican priest Revd Andrew Thompson of St Andrew’s Church, Abu Dhabi.
‘The nation has good laws,’ the British vicar who has served in the region for the past 27 years, told Lapido. ‘We just want to assist the government in letting the workers know what they are.’
UAE labour law demands payment of a salary every month. Employers must provide health care, vacation, and sick leave, within a working week of 48 hours. Passports may not be confiscated.
Unfortunately, each of these provisions is regularly violated.
Given the vast expanse of labour camps, oversight is difficult, Thompson told the UAE-based National. And companies that encounter problems simply shut up shop and open elsewhere.
But ignorance and illiteracy keep many migrants from knowing their rights in the first place.
St Andrew’s Church compound is part of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. Thompson hosts and oversees an international community of more than ten thousand weekly worshippers, in 45 congregations with 17 language groups.
Thanks to those like Thompson and his teams of volunteers, they now have the law translated into twelve different languages.
Instead of lambasting local negligence, as much of the media do – even Migrants’ Rights complain this is counter-productive – Thompson believes in supplementing it.
‘Once you shame an Arab you lose him for life,’ said Thompson. ‘We want to honour all that is right and good, and fill in the gaps where the government isn’t working.’
As a priest, Thompson recognizes the religious roots of identifying corruption in society, but he has chosen a different way. Both are necessary, but he is making a practical difference.
‘Some say there should be a prophetic voice,’ he said. ‘We want to be prophetic hands.’