Month: April 2018

CultureHuman Rights

Labor in the Arabian Gulf–Part 3

The future of the citizen workforce

As teachers charged with preparing young adults to become productive members of their society, it was important for my colleagues and I to first understand the peculiarities of the Gulf labor market. We were informed by periodic seminars and workshops, conversations with industry representatives and recent graduates as well as through personal research projects.

While Oman’s wise Sultan’s plan has long been to train Omanis for white-collar jobs in education, business management and the STEM industries, the reality was that in many instances this was a long-range goal. Maintaining expat labor in supervisory and management positions was key to keeping the economy humming in the near-term. What I clearly heard from my students was that they weren’t interested in being part of the blue-collar workforce. They wanted a job, preferably with the government, that came complete with their own desk, computer and a sufficient salary.

Students taking an exam at one of Oman’s major universities. The percentage of females studying is considerably higher than males at many of the Sultanate’s universities.

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Human Rights

Video–90 Seconds of Migrant Labor in the Gulf



You’re recruited to live and work in a foreign country

You work from sun up to sundown 6 days each week 

You’re herded onto the back of trucks like cattle and dropped off at a work

location before dawn each day, then picked up after sunset

You’re paid very low wages for your hard manual labor

You have to work for months to pay the recruitment agency fees

You send all you make back to feed your extended family and often go without

Your labor is arduous and you’re working outside in extreme heat and humidity

You only get to return to your country to visit your family every 2 years

You live in extremely crowded substandard housing

You live this way for years because you have no other way to feed your family

You will never be allowed to become a citizen of the country you’re developing

You have very few rights under your host country’s legal system

You may have to put up with mistreatment by your employer

You’re often lonely, depressed and sick due to neglecting your health

Your employer will only pay for medical care that involves your ability to do your job-

injury to arms, legs or back are covered…eye infections, no way

You will be sent home if you get sick and can no longer work

IMAGINE…this is your life…


CultureHuman Rights

Labor in the Arabian Gulf–Part 2

But, things are SO cheap here!

The Gulf was one of the few places I’ve lived where many of my teaching colleagues hired help each week, especially for house cleaning and car washing. For less than US $10, a teacher could hire the services of a cleaner for an entire weekend afternoon. Call me crazy, but I like doing my own cooking and cleaning so I never went the way of many other expats while I was living there.

During my first two years in Oman, college administration officials allowed faculty to have their cars washed on campus. This practice gave some of the college-sponsored laborers the opportunity to add to monthly salaries as low as RO 40, or a little over US $100. I was accused more than once by co-workers of ‘spoiling’ the system because it was difficult for me to pay one of these laborers the equivalent of US $1.00 for hand-washing the exterior and cleaning the interior of my car in temps that would bring on heatstroke for an average person. In reality, I wasn’t alone in paying more than the standard rate for such services.

Another example of low-tech construction methods–workers routinely dug trenches by hand before burying water pipes or electrical cables.

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CultureHuman Rights

Labor in the Arabian Gulf-Part 1

Here, as in many of my posts, I’ll be walking along a precipitous slope while making cultural comparisons based on my personal experiences and research while living and working in different regions of the world where cultural norms and practices may contrast starkly. My aim is not to find fault or present one culture as being superior to another. As I’ve stated repeatedly in this blog, it’s my belief that all cultures hold valuable lessons for others to learn. These posts are simply meant to be a starting point for discussion on topics I feel are important, not an indictment of any specific people, religion or way of life.

Understanding that we’re all products of our own cultural upbringing and accumulated life experiences, I’ve admitted repeatedly that it’s challenging for me to maintain an objective cultural perspective, especially while living and actively participating in life within a given country and culture. I’ve found it’s much easier to see all sides of an issue once you’ve put a bit of distance between yourself and the major challenges of the moment. With all our shared human flaws, we’re more likely to achieve a balanced point of view by reflecting on experiences over a period of time.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to share some thoughts I had this week while visiting one of the huge building supply stores here in the USA. While searching aisle to aisle for just the right type of lumber, hardware and screws to complete a small project, I was reminded of the differing perspectives on physical labor and the concept of self-sufficiency that are evident from one culture to another.

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US Customs and Border Protection, ARGH!

“Woman fined $500 over ‘free’ Delta Airlines Apple”

A Colorado woman, Crystal Tadlock, was fined $500 by a US Customs and Border Protection agent and had her Global Entry status revoked for having an apple in her backpack while clearing customs after a flight from Paris to Minneapolis on Wednesday, April 18. According to a BBC report, and various interviews Ms. Tadlock has given since the incident, the apple had been given to her on a Delta Airlines flight. She had tucked it into her bag to save for the final leg of her journey from Minneapolis to Denver.

The fine issued by US Customs and Border Protection

I do realize that many far more terrible things have happened in the world since last Wednesday, and some would say this is no big deal. However, it’s the kind of government-overreach that just makes my head spin. Why can’t the USA have sensible and realistic customs regulations and train agents to treat passengers like fellow human beings?

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Concepts of Ownership

A few days ago, I noticed an ‘invitation’ from one of my USA-based frequent flyer programs, nestled among the dozens of other promotional emails I had received. This one caught my attention with the bold headline, “Earn up to 13,000 bonus miles and help keep what’s yours, yours.” On most days, an advertisement of this sort would only deserve a cursory glance, but physically being back in the USA has heightened my awareness of marketing messages and I found myself pondering the reasons for duplicating the possessive pronoun “yours, yours” at the end of the statement.

I understand these words were carefully selected to dramatize the very real threat of identity theft, but to me the message was typically American since the targeted individual (moi) was being told ‘you possess something of great value, so don’t let anyone else take it away from you’. While the words had been carefully chosen to appeal to personal ego and our sense of self-importance along with highlighting our legal rights of possession, I also see them as yet another sign that the American cultural pendulum has swung to the extreme end of the individualism spectrum.

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Spring’s Ode to Van Gogh

Experiencing spring in one of the world’s temperate zones for the first time in 14 years excites my senses in similar fashion to the way artist Vincent Van Gogh must have felt upon moving from Paris to the colorful countryside of Arles in southern France in 1888. Van Gogh had found Paris to be dull and gray just as Brussels had been, and he longed to be in a place that was warm and colorful.

Colour expresses something in itself. One can’t do without it; one must make use of it. What looks beautiful, really beautiful — is also right.

Vincent to his brother Theo, c. 28 October 1885

Field with

Field with Irises near Arles 1888. Courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

While I’ve had the good fortune to live in a variety of the world’s tropical regions that would have surely delighted Van Gogh’s senses, I’d forgotten how spectacularly beautiful temperate landscapes can be as they emerge from a long, cold winter’s sleep. The myriad shades of green and red budding deciduous trees, along with furiously blooming everything, make me feel like a child seeing the natural world for the first time.

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Culture Shock USA

We may not normally think of it this way, but culture shock is a two-way street. Every time I return to the USA to visit family and friends, I experience reverse culture shock as I must once again adapt to the American way of doing things.

While there are many differences, both great and small, between life in the USA and most other countries, the things that immediately spring to mind are the incredibly long waits to clear airport immigration and customs procedures, the vast number of  products available in hypermarkets and the many pharmaceutical ads on TV.

Welcome to (understaffed) fortress USA

After a long flight touches down, tired passengers are immediately assaulted by the disorganization and long wait times involved in clearing US immigration at many of America’s gateway airports. In what has become the rule rather than the exception, I now just assume I won’t make my connecting flight after landing at Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth or Houston International airports. While I’ve learned to remain calm and collected during these situations, the same can’t be said for many of my fellow passengers,  who huff, puff and generally raise their blood pressure to hazardous levels.

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Photo Story–Monks in Thailand

Bangkok.summer.2012 002

Young monks waiting outside Thai immigration office

Many photographers would agree that the most photogenic moments take place randomly and, of course, when you may least expect them. On the day I snapped the photo above, I was making an obligatory appearance at Bangkok’s main Thai immigration office which is located in a mammoth complex near the old (now domestic) Don Mueang Airport in the northern sector of that sprawling metropolis. After a long taxi ride, my mind was preoccupied by the wait I had ahead of me as well as the encounter I was about to have with a mammoth bureaucracy.

As usual, I hadn’t been given all the necessary forms by the international school where I was working, so an immigration employee provided the missing pages and directed me to fill them out in the courtyard of the office complex. As I walked out of the office into the cavernous interior of the building–mumbling now censored rude words about my employer under my breath–I looked around for a spot where I could sit while I filled out the forms. There were circular stone benches surrounding large planters that lined the outer edge of this vast space, so I headed for one of those.

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