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  • Aalia Garrett

Modern-Day Slavery in the United Arab Emirates

Author: Aalia Garrett

September 5, 2023


Migrant labor workers performing manual labor on a construction site in Dubai, UAE. Laborers around the Arabian Gulf are coerced to endure and work in extreme heat conditions. [Image source: National Geographic]

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), renowned for its opulent skyscrapers and extravagant lifestyle, hides a dark reality beneath its glossy facade, where there exists a foundation of human tragedy that paints a stark contrast to its outward image. In the pursuit of a better life, millions of South Asian migrants, predominantly from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have been enticed by the tantalizing promise of high wages and stability that the UAE seemingly offers.


Despite diligent endeavors to address and mitigate these urgent concerns, the UAE's deeply ingrained kafala system and other exploitative labor practices consistently loom over the lives of these migrants. However, this cycle of abuse, marked by systemic injustice and exploitation, has not gone unnoticed. Its reverberations reach far beyond the UAE's borders, resonating globally as a reminder of the fragile state of human rights in the pursuit of economic gain. This truth also stands as a poignant and resolute indication that the quest for progress and prosperity should never compromise human dignity and well-being. It is a call to action for nations and societies around the world to uphold the inherent rights of every individual, regardless of their background or origin. As the world bears witness to the grim consequences of unchecked exploitation, it becomes evident that true progress can only be achieved when it is built upon a foundation of fairness, justice, and unwavering respect for the rights and dignity of all.


Lured by False Promises


Every year, millions of migrant workers often find themselves entangled in a web of deceit spun by unscrupulous work agencies operating in the shadows of the UAE's glittering skyline. These agencies dangle the allure of a better life – one filled with lucrative wages and a promise of stability – as bait to lure vulnerable individuals seeking opportunities to escape poverty back home. However, this mirage of a brighter future quickly dissolves as these hopeful migrants are thrust into a cycle of exploitation.


The journey to the UAE begins with exorbitant travel and visa costs, a burden that should rightfully fall upon the shoulders of the hiring companies, as mandated by Emirati law. However, migrants are more often than not coerced into shouldering these financial responsibilities themselves, plunging them into a desperate scramble for funds. Even for those whose employers did pay the initial recruitment fees, employees who seek to resign are oftentimes forced to reimburse the company for such expenses. In other cases, employers may withhold specific sums from workers' salaries in order to cover the recruitment fee. As such, families are approached, friends are tapped, and loans are acquired from any available source, all to finance this costly endeavor. The weight of these debts becomes a yoke around their necks, chaining them to the very desperation they sought to escape. They arrive in the UAE with not just the baggage of their dreams, but also a heavy load of financial obligations that threaten to overwhelm their aspirations. This practice is a striking divergence from the legal framework that should protect these migrants. Emirati law explicitly places the onus on employers to cover the expenses related to travel and visa. By shifting this financial burden onto the migrants themselves, these unscrupulous agencies brazenly flout the very laws that are meant to safeguard the rights and dignity of those who seek employment within the country.


However, it should be noted that the exploitation doesn't end with the migrants' advent in the UAE. Instead, it marks the beginning of a journey characterized by broken promises and shattered dreams. As these individuals step foot on Emirati soil, their passports are often seized, effectively imprisoning them within a system where they are beholden to their employers. This further entrenches their vulnerability, rendering them powerless to assert their rights or escape abusive situations.


Trapped in a Vicious Cycle


Upon their arrival in the UAE, migrant workers are thrust into an insidious web of control and exploitation, stripped of their autonomy and agency. This manipulation is epitomized by the confiscation of their passports, an act that transforms their hopes for a better life into a nightmare of entrapment. The kafala system, which is a sponsorship-based labor framework prevalent in many Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, ties migrant workers' legal status to their employers, giving employers significant control over their employees' immigration status, work permits, and often living conditions. This system has been criticized for potential exploitation and abuses of workers' rights, though it notably forms the backbone of the UAE's labor structure. Migrant workers, often far from their families and support networks, find themselves at the mercy of their employers' whims, unable to voice grievances or seek redress for their mistreatment. Under this oppressive regime, these individuals are subjected to grueling work conditions that defy the most basic principles of human dignity. Many are coerced into working arduous 12-hour shifts, sometimes for seven days a week. The promise of fair wages, which initially drew them to the UAE, is cruelly betrayed as they discover the meager compensation they receive – an average of around $175 per week.


The disparity between this paltry income and the lavish lifestyles they help build for others is a grim reminder of the injustice they endure. Even more egregious is the practice of withholding wages, a tactic that further exacerbates their vulnerability. Shockingly, many workers go for months without receiving any payment for their toil, a reprehensible breach of their basic rights. This withholding not only denies them the fair remuneration they are owed but also plunges them deeper into financial distress, pushing them into a cycle of debt that becomes impossible to escape. As the months of unpaid labor accumulate, the dream of sending money back home to support their families fades into an agonizing mirage. The very purpose for which they embarked on this journey – to uplift their loved ones from poverty – becomes an unattainable aspiration. This heart-wrenching situation not only keeps them ensnared in a life of exploitation, but also perpetuates the cycle of poverty for their families back home.


COVID-19 Pandemic and Economic Downturn


To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic turmoil, coupled with a sharp decline in oil prices, only aggravated the difficulties faced by these workers. The dire situation was further intensified, creating a perfect storm of hardship, uncertainty, and despair. In the wake of these crises, countless migrant workers saw their livelihoods crumble, plunging them into a state of mass unemployment and utter destitution. As the pandemic's grip tightened, the lives of these individuals took a dramatic turn for the worse. The jobs that had provided a lifeline were suddenly snatched away, leaving them adrift in a sea of uncertainty. The once-promised stability and prosperity transitioned into a state that could be described as nothing less than hopelessness for some as they grappled with unemployment in a foreign land. Stripped of their income and facing insurmountable financial burdens, thousands of migrants found themselves trapped in the UAE, whether that be in part due to the expenses that would arise in returning home, travel bans, or because of a confiscated passport. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more had not been paid their earned wages. This left dreams shattered and aspirations to be reduced to mere survival.


Volunteers distribute Iftar meals to migrant workers keeping distance from each other during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. [Image credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images]

This circumstance was further compounded by the living conditions that awaited them. The pandemic-induced hardships pushed a significant number of migrants into desolate half-abandoned work camps on the outskirts of the city. These makeshift settlements, far removed from the glitz and glamor associated with the UAE, are a testament to the systemic neglect and exploitation faced by these individuals. Within these camps, basic amenities are a luxury, and the absence of adequate sanitation, clean water, and proper shelter paints a harrowing picture of their daily struggle. The squalid conditions they endure stand in contrast to the extravagant lifestyle that characterizes other segments of UAE society. Trapped within these confines, migrant workers found themselves battling not only the pandemic, but also the indignity of living in conditions unfit for human habitation. As their options dwindle and desperation takes hold, many are left with no choice but to rely on charitable donations to stave off starvation. The once self-reliant individuals are forced to depend on the goodwill of others to meet their most basic needs, a poignant illustration of the depths to which they have been pushed.


Absence of Trade Unions, Collective Bargaining, and a Federal Minimum Wage


One glaring void within the labor landscape of the UAE is the absence of trade unions and collective bargaining, which significantly impacts the rights and interests of workers. UAE law currently does not acknowledge the right of workers to organize and establish trade unions, further compounded by the prohibition of strikes as stipulated in the labor law. Notably, the 1980 labor law permits employers to temporarily suspend workers without pay in the event of a strike. In a recent directive exclusively targeting migrant workers, the federal government imposed a minimum one-year employment ban for involvement in an "illegal strike or its instigation."


The lack of provisions for worker organization and representation has resulted in the absence of institutions that can effectively champion the concerns and needs of workers. Trade unions are universally recognized as crucial mechanisms for workers to voice grievances to relevant governmental bodies, engage in negotiations with employers, and advocate for structural reforms. Despite promises from the government, efforts to enact legislation allowing trade union activities have not yet materialized. The absence of concrete action in this regard raises concerns about the genuine commitment to workers' rights. International human rights standards firmly guarantee the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, encompassing the establishment of unions to safeguard workers' interests.


As a member state of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UAE bears the responsibility to facilitate workers' organization for the purpose of collective bargaining. The ILO explicitly affirms that all member states must uphold and safeguard freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining as fundamental labor principles, regardless of their ratification status of key ILO conventions governing these rights. However, the UAE's lack of enforcement regarding agency-related laws, coupled with the legal gap for employers, results in indebted workers being unable to financially quit their jobs, thus rendering them susceptible to mistreatment by their UAE employers. The pressing need for labor unions in the UAE is underscored by the critical role they play in advocating for workers' rights via the government and private sector. Through organized representation, labor unions could address the exploitation documented in this report, particularly within the construction sector. Recognizing workers' right to establish trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and exercise the option of striking is an essential step toward improving the conditions and well-being of migrant workers in the UAE. It is a crucial stride toward ensuring that the pursuit of economic prosperity is balanced with the protection of workers' rights and human dignity.


Additionally, there is a glaring absence of a minimum wage, resulting in abysmally low earnings that fail to meet even the most basic of needs. Monthly wages for these laborers range from a mere 390 AED ($106) to 900 AED ($250), illustrating the severity of the issue. Remarkably, although the 1980 UAE Labor Law explicitly mandates the establishment of a minimum wage, this provision has remained a mere inked aspiration, never translating into practical reality. Article 63 of the Labor Law outlines the framework for setting a minimum wage and cost-of-living index for workers. The stipulations are clear and comprehensive, emphasizing the necessity of guaranteeing a wage sufficient to cover basic necessities and secure livelihoods. However, despite the legal framework in place, the failure to implement this provision raises critical questions about the commitment to ensuring just and equitable compensation for workers. Human Rights Watch's inquiry to the minister of labor in July 2006 sought answers as to why this fundamental law had yet to be enforced. Unfortunately, the response received from the UAE government in September failed to address this crucial matter.


Global Slavery Index


In 2021, the Global Slavery Index revealed an unsettling statistic – approximately 132,000 individuals are trapped in modern slavery within the UAE on any given day. This positions the UAE as the seventh-ranked country globally in terms of modern-day slavery prevalence, marked by a prevalence rating of 13.4% and an estimated 132,000 individuals affected. This ranking unveils a distressing reality – that modern slavery has taken root, blanketing countless lives with its pervasive influence.


[Source: Global Slavery Index]

Amid this alarming backdrop, it's essential to note that countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery are often characterized by conflict, state-imposed forced labor, and weak governance. The deeply concerning statistics emphasize the urgent need for reform. While the heart of this issue largely lies in the kafala system, this power imbalance extends beyond the workplace, rendering workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, with limited avenues for seeking justice. Further compounding the problem is a cycle of dependency fostered by the kafala system, effectively eclipsing workers' aspirations for prosperity with the staunch realities they face. Stripped of agency, they are left powerless to pursue better opportunities or assert their fundamental rights. This system severely curtails their ability to challenge their circumstances, leaving them exposed to various forms of abuse, from wage deprivation to passport confiscation and even physical and emotional mistreatment.


Reform Efforts and Their Limitations


Despite the Emirati government's notable strides in tackling modern slavery through labor reforms and anti-trafficking measures, such as prohibiting workers from paying recruitment fees and allowing workers to change workplaces without the need for authorization from their employer, it is evident that these actions have not yet succeeded in completely eradicating the issue. The persistence of the kafala system serves as a reminder of the deeply rooted challenges that continue to enable the exploitation of vulnerable individuals, creating an environment where such abuses can flourish unchecked. The kafala system's enduring presence maintains a firm grip on the situation, perpetuating a climate where exploitation remains a constant threat. The very framework that ties workers to their employers is a barrier to the realization of meaningful change. The steps taken thus far, while commendable, have yet to dismantle this system and usher in a new era of fairness, dignity, and respect for all workers.


Recognizing the urgency of the situation, international organizations, including the prominent International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), have since issued a call to action. The ITUC's impassioned plea for the intervention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) serves as a beacon of hope for those trapped in the appalling conditions experienced by many migrant workers. This further emphasizes the severity of the circumstances and emphasizes the need for a collective effort to address modern slavery comprehensively. It is a rallying cry for solidarity, an assertion that the global community must stand together to confront the underlying systems that perpetuate exploitation and work towards a future where every individual's rights and well-being are unequivocally upheld. As the world watches, the response to this call will serve as a litmus test of our commitment to justice and the protection of human rights on a global scale.


Conclusion


In this harsh landscape, the migrant worker's story becomes a tale of endurance, sacrifice, and perseverance in the face of relentless adversity. Their struggles are emblematic of a system that prioritizes profit over humanity, turning individuals into commodities to be exploited for economic gain. The UAE stands at a crossroads, faced with the moral imperative to dismantle a system that perpetuates these abuses. Reform must be more than just rhetoric; it must be a resolute commitment to justice, dignity, and fairness for all who contribute to the nation's prosperity.


As the world watches, the UAE has the opportunity to redefine its legacy – to shift from a narrative of exploitation to one of empowerment. The transformation required is not merely surface-level; it demands a fundamental reevaluation of policies, a comprehensive overhaul of labor practices, and a steadfast dedication to safeguarding the rights and well-being of its workforce. By embarking on this journey of change, the UAE can demonstrate its dedication to human rights, social progress, and ethical leadership on the global stage. While the road ahead is certainly challenging, it is also one of immense promise. By embracing genuine reforms, the UAE has the chance to lead by example, setting a new standard for the treatment of migrant workers and showcasing the transformative potential of a society that values the inherent dignity of all its members. Only through comprehensive changes can the UAE transform its labor landscape from one defined by exploitation to one marked by empowerment and respect for the rights of all its workers. The time to act is now – to pave the way for a future where prosperity and compassion go hand in hand, creating a nation that truly thrives on the principles of justice, equality, and human rights.

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