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Trafficking and Foreign Labor in the Gulf: An Interview with Pardis Mahdavi

July 19, 2011

Earlier this month, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, an inventory of the world’s efforts at combating the global trade in people. The 2011 report marks a turning point of sorts for US foreign policy. For the first time ever, the new TIP includes an assessment—if predictably positive—of Washington’s own attempts at battling trafficking at home. More encouraging still, the report reflects the explicit recognition that trafficking is not only about the forced prostitution of women but represents the problem of coerced labor of both women and men around the world. Despite these progressive shifts, however, the new report is not without its critics. Some contend that Washington’s commitment to fighting forced labor remains subordinate to the larger dynamics of American interest and that the discourse driving US policy particularly disadvantages Muslim-majority nation-states.

Understanding how this discourse shapes both policy and the lived experiences of foreign workers in the Gulf region is of central concern in Pardis Mahdavi’s Gridlock, a new book on trafficking and migrant labor in Dubai. In it, Mahdavi interviews sex workers, taxi drivers, construction workers and domestic servants laboring under the Gulf’s kefala sponsorship framework—a legal architecture that largely determines the contours of Dubai’s formal and informal political economy. The portrait that emerges upends conventional understandings of trafficking—which often equate the phenomenon with sex slavery—to reveal a vastly more nuanced, complex, and often messy reality of migrant life in the emirate.

I recently spoke with Mahdavi about some of these issues, her new book more broadly, and the possibility for reinvigorated discourses and policies that privilege labor rights while narrowing the trafficking debate exclusively around instances of “force, fraud, and coercion.”

I was hoping to begin by asking you to unpack the book’s title. What is the “gridlock” in attempting to understanding labor, migration and human trafficking in Dubai?

Pardis Mahdavi: It’s funny you mention that. The original title of the book was actually “Traffic Jam.” It was basically intended to convey the fact that the issue of trafficking involves the interplay of so many different factors and that the topic involves such a messy intersection between policy, discourse, and lived reality. That’s what I was trying to convey with a title like “Traffic Jam.” I think Gridlock—which was chosen by my editor—similarly conveys this powerful nexus where these issues are gridlocked in any number of ways. At the same time, it also speaks to those who have spent time in the Gulf, or anywhere in the Middle East. The experience of just sitting in gridlock should be familiar, and it says a lot about the field, the title was chosen to invoke the field.

Keep reading at Jadaliyya

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