Abuse of Power by Employers in the UAE

In war the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor. We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil. We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn, and our own board is empty. We have chains, though no eye beholds them; and are slaves, though men call us free.

-Oscar Wilde, The Young King (1892)

-Dr. Rahul Kumar

by  Rahul  Kumar

As per the ILO, there are currently 214 million migrants, expected to rise to 405 million by 2050.Migration of Indians workers, skilled and unskilled, to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been in trend since 1973. Today, migrant workers make up more than 70 percent of the work force in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 236,500 domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates, of whom 146,100 are female, accounting for 12.8 percent of the total employment in the country. Only a handful of migrants have been granted citizenship since the country gained independence in 1971.

Around 2.623 million (27.49%) live and work in UAE. Recruitment process is cumbersome and labour abuses are daily affair in the UAE. There are several agencies involved in recruitment. Recruiters often ask workers to sign one contract in their home country, then instruct them to sign a new one at far lower wages once they arrive in the Gulf. According to report published by MFA Working Paper in 2011, “serious gaps exits between procedures as proscribed by laws/policies and the actual experience of migrants as they navigate the recruitment process. These gaps leave workers vulnerable to mistreatment, abuse and exploitation on the part of unscrupulous recruitment agencies and their subagents”. Gulf states have also not ratified the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to organize Convention which was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1948. As such, migrant workers cannot form unions and protest these unfair labour practices. The United Nations Development Programme affirms that foreign workers in the Gulf cooperation Council (GCC) face such challenges, noting that they stem from racism, social exclusion, lack of accountability, and abuse of power by their employersSystematic violations of migrant workers’ human rights and striking health disparities among these populations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are the norm in member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Labor abuses in the UAE persist. Despite some reforms many low-paid migrant workers remain acutely vulnerable to forced labor. The kafala(visa-sponsorship) system ties migrant workers to their employers. Those who leave their employers without their consent before the end of a contact can face punishment for “absconding,” including fines, prison, and deportation. A 2017 law Extended key protections to domestic workers, but the provisions remain weaker than those in the country’s national labor law. The kafala[1] regime is widespread in Gulf countries and it perfectly embodies the ingredients of modern slavery.

Domestic workers face a range of abuses, including long working hours, unpaid salaries, and physical and sexual abuse. Samer Muscati, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) explained, “Workers also complain of non-payment of wages, despite a mandatory electronic payment system introduced in 2009 that requires companies to pay salaries directly into licensed banks to ensure timely payment without illegal deductions”. Domestic workers especially women are subjected to various kinds of sexual abuses by the elite class of UAE compelling the victims to take drastic step to end their life. More than 700 suicides among Indian migrants in UAE between 2007 and 2013 occurred. Thousands of suicides by domestic workers, due to suppression of freedom of press goes unreported. Human Rights atch(HRW) went so far as to assert that some of the new regulations institutionalize discrimination against women. Domestic workers are often physically, psychologically, and sexually abused. They are denied adequate food, living conditions, or medical reatment. Violence against maids includes physical attacks ranging from rape to slapping, hair-pulling, burning with hot irons and coals, so traumatized by the experience that it even negatively affects their ability to reintegrate into society upon returning home. According to BBC, Eight princesses from the UAE have been convicted of Human trafficking and degrading treatment of their servants by a Brussels court.

Dubai has been a hub of multiple commercial activities for the tourists coming from various parts of the world. In order to boost economy of Dubai, several westerns abominable cultural immoralities are adopted and practiced ranging from human trafficking to cash-rich prostitution. “Dubai has an economy that’s based on a mirage,” says Syed Ali, sociologist and author of “Dubai: Gilded Cage.”

Prostitution may represent 30 percent of Dubai`s economy. Commercial sex workers operate out of apartment brothels and hotels, walk the streets, and work in club. Some estimates have as many as 30,000 sex workers in Dubai alone. Domestic workers are sold under the nose of the law enforcing agencies into sex slavery upon arrival in Dubai.

Since the mid-1990s, camel racing has grown into the UAE’s national sport. Camel jockeys are subject not only to mental and physical disorders shared with other migrant workers, but also to abuses unique to the sport. To keep the children’s weight low, trainers deprive them of food and give them salty water to drink, which increases diarrhea. They are forced to run in the desert heat carrying weights to lose any weight they might gain.

The measures taken by the Ministry of Labour (MoL), UAE in curbing domestic exploitation are not enough. Shutting down 1,441 firms due to their failure to safeguard worker`s wages is the tip of the iceberg. While 121,000 cases are currently pending within the preliminary courts for settlement. As for the private sector, the report said that 530,000 cases have been registered, including 6,329 by female workers. There are also more than 228,000 runaway cases inside the country, and 296,000 abroad.

Initiatives taken by UAE Government

In order to prevent human trafficking, several initiatives have been taken by Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization by appointing anti-trafficking inspectors. The government enacted Federal Law No.10 of 2017, which provided additional protections for domestic workers, as well as specified new regulations for recruitment agencies and employers of such workers, including those pertaining to hiring practices, working conditions, and employment contracts. The National Committee to combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT) has been working to bring the culprits to the book.    Similarly, civil society organizations such as Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC) is generating anti-trafficking awareness among the general populace. In matter of Policy framework, the UAE is not a signatory for most international human rights and labor rights treaties, which limits its accountability to international systems.

Current Scenario

Although several legal measures are taken by the local authorities to prevent exploitation of migrant workers yet the employers found to be continuing the obnoxious practices against the migrant workers. With the help of Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi India, the Indian Workers` Resources Centre (IWRC) now called Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra, Dubai (PBSKDB) and Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra, Sharjah(PBSK-SJ) are set up to provide assistance to the immigrant workers in case of injustice or illegal detention. A Migrant worker in Dubai, on the condition of anonymity explained, “Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra, Dubai (PBSKDB) is a show-piece which has no legal power to fight for justice for the migrant workers in Dubai.

Labour law in the UAE is weak and superficial. It is designed to circumvent accountability by providing a veneer of regulation to a system that is wholly weighted in favor of the employer. The result is untrammeled development at the expense of the most basic human rights of South Asian migrant worker. Migrant workers face several types of hurdles in registering complaints. The Gulf News reports how 38 South Asians were prevented from making a complaint because they could not afford to pay a AED 20 typing.

The employers and law –enforcing agencies enjoy a powerful nexus to suppress the cases of exploitation & mistreatment. Most of the time the police officers favor the employer and pass the verdict accordingly”. An Indian women migrant domestic worker in Dubai stated, “I was beaten mercilessly by lady of the house. Not only this, but she also pulled me by hairs to the street in the dark of the night and thrown me out of the house. I called my brother-in-law who was staying 25 miles away. We went to the nearest police station and try to register complaint but all in vain. Most of the employers are rich and resourceful hence they bribe the Police officer and close the case simply by giving a mild warning, she said. Later on my brother and I went to PBSKDB to explain my case but the officials showed their helplessness. “PBSKDB is a bogus body full of sycophants and opportunists whose primary interest is to draw economic and political benefit from the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi”, she described.

The UAE government is apprehensive of the migrant workers hence do not allow them to form any sort of workers` union to organize protests or demonstrations on the streets to seek justice to exploitation and mistreatment by the employers. Riaz Hassan, a visiting research professor at the Institute of Sotuh Asia Studies, National University of Singapore remarks that, “Emiratis also view migrant workers as a potential source of “working class militancy” for better social, economic and political rights, posing a threat to the Emirati social fabric”. David Keane & Micholas Mc Greehan argue that, “The involvement of the government in the system of exploitation is the reason why domestic UAE labour laws will never be effective. The government is deeply involved in industry, and the line between private and public enterprise is so blurred that it must be considered non-existent. The UAE government is profiting enormously from migrant labour, and has no incentive to improve workers’ rights. This is extremely difficult to justify. It is shameful in a state of untold wealth that the most basic rights are not granted to migrant workers”.

India`s Role

Between 2014-2018, economic trade between India-UAE rose to US$50 billion Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India visited UAE more than the External Affairs Minister Ms. Sushma  Swaraj. The number of MOUs signed between  the two countries at the bilateral meetings are mainly on trade, tourism, intelligence sharing, terrorism, security, skill development, and defense cooperation so & so. The litany is that neither Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi nor external Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during her tenure ever took up the matter related to exploitation and mistreatment of migrant workers in the UAE by the employers.

The External Ministry of New Delhi India must take up the matter related to abuse of power against the migrant workers with the UAE government at the highest level and institute a steady and comprehensive mechanism to protect the vulnerable migrant workers.

Dr. Rahul Kumar, Ph.D. Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. India. He is an independent researcher and senior media columnist. He is a member of Editorial Committee of Global Research Forum for Diaspora and Transnationalism (GRFDT) New Delhi. India.

The views expressed by the author in this article are personal and does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency.


[1] The Aliens’ Residence Law of 1959 and its accompanying implementation regulations lay down the Kuwaiti kafala sponsorship system, pursuant to which migrant workers must have a local immigration sponsor who must also be the employer