Some reflections on the realities of life for UAE’s migrant workers


Some reflections on the realities of life for UAE’s migrant workers

Today is International Migrants Day, an occasion celebrated on 18th December each year to mark the UN’s adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Membersof Their Families. There are an estimated 20 million migrant workers in the Middle East and North Africa; and in the UAE, an estimated 70% – 90% of the total population are immigrants, with more than 30,000 women and girls enter the UAE for the purposes of securing employment in hotels or as domestic workers or secretaries.
While many of the UAE’s migrant workers go on to secure six figure salaries; life for the 450,000 domestic workers and 500,000 construction workers can be very different. Construction workers, many of whom are migrant workers originating from South Asia, often live on no more than $120 a month, working 12 hour days and 6 day working weeks while subsisting in substandard and cramped conditions on a diet of the cheapest ingredients available, such as lentils and bread. Domestic workers secure a monthly salary averaging $170, working 7 days a week between 16 and 21 hours a day.  Many domestic workers subsist on one meal a day of leftovers or other food deemed no longer edible by the hosting family and an estimated quarter are not provided with a bedroom in which to sleep.

The “Kafala” or “sponsorship” system is used to monitor the construction and domestic migrant workers in the Arab Gulf States as well as in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan. This system means that expatriate workers can only enter, work, and leave those countries with the assistance or explicit permission of their sponsor or employer, who is a local in the country. The employer (or “Kafile”) is responsible for their visa and legal status.

This Kafala system has been widely criticised for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions, despite the legislations that are supposedly in place. Many migrant workers become, in effect, slaves. Frequency of movement, insufficient legislation and harmful practices, such as the Kafala system, have also contributed towards the establishment of the UAE as a destination for sex tourism.

While producing our preliminary research on the sex trafficking of Iraqi women and girls we came across the case of 16 year old Husn.  Following her mother’s death, her father agreed to sell her for $6,000 to work as domestic worker for a family in Dubai for one year, believing she would be returned at the end of the contract. In fact, upon being taken to Dubai, Husn’s virginity was sold to a local man and she was imprisoned with 20 other young girls, all of whom were forced to engage in prostitution.

Husn’s case is heart-breaking, but it is not the only one. Upon arrival into the UAE, many vulnerable women and girls have their passports taken from them by those who have organised their passage, and face forced prostitution and bonded labour to repay their travel expenses. We have uncovered a shocking host of anecdotal evidence suggesting that in addition to migrants entering the GCC states legally, as many as half of all women illegally trafficked into Dubai are forced into prostitution. With no passport, and a justice system that favours the sponsor, those who manage to escape their captors are likely to face a prison sentence themselves and have even been referred to as ‘threats to national security’ by government officials.

The situation for many of the region’s domestic workers, construction workers and vulnerable migrants and refugees can often seem hopeless, but there is a way to move forward. Jordan is in many respects a beacon state for the protection of migrant workers, and can offer a model for change in the GCC states.  Migrant domestic workers have the right to medical care, life insurance, improved working conditions including rest days and the guarantee of repatriation at the end of their contract.  Once excluded from labour laws, Jordan’s migrant worker’s rights are to a much greater extent protected both by domestic legislation and by Jordan’s ratification of numerous international conventions. We must work with ministries, such as those of the UAE, to take the good from Jordan and encourage a monumental shift in the treatment of the UAE’s workers.

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