Rising Scholar: A Cycle of Slavery: Migrant Labor and Human Rights Violations in the United Arab Emirates.

AuthorKini, Narayan

Although the United Arab Emirates is currently a pinnacle of modernization, boasting landmarks such as the famous Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and The Dubai Mall, a sprawling megacomplex of over 13 million square feet, thirty years ago the state had none of its acclaimed infrastructure. Since its founding in 1971, the United Arab Emirates has rapidly morphed into a post-industrial society supported by an influx of migrant workers who supplement the native Emirati labor supply. Workers are admitted in to the country through the government-directed migration policy, the kafala system, and funneled into low-skill industries, with two of the most common being the construction and domestic service sectors. (1) Construction workers, due to a lack of government protection, are then subjected to hazardous living and working environments by their companies to minimize costs. Likewise, domestic servants were not legally protected until 2017, and continue to suffer abuse at the hands of employers. Through a combination of insufficient laws and enforcement, the UAE government allows for the exploitation of migrant workers to prompt economic development and provide cheap labor for elite private citizens and major construction corporations, in effect creating a cycle of modern slavery. Immigrant workers are trapped in this cycle of slavery, indebted to different money lenders, and left vulnerable to exploitation due to the lack of legal protections. To explore this issue, this paper will first provide some historical background before examining the state-sponsored migration system, which is the foundation for public and private sector exploitation of migrants. The conclusions of this analysis offer explanations for why the UAE government allows such human rights abuses and the consequences of state-building through a distinct subclass of individuals.

Historical Context

Established on December 2, 1971, The United Arab Emirates is a constitutional federation of seven emirates. Each of these regional bodies possesses significant autonomy and is headed by a single official called an emir. Together, the seven emirs form the Federal Supreme Council (FSC), the United Arab Emirates' most powerful legislative-executive organization, which holds the power to select the president. Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan served as chief executive of the United Arab Emirates since the federation's founding up until his death in 2004, when power transferred to Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the current president.

It was under these two executives that the United Arab Emirates achieved its economic modernization. Beginning in the 1970s, a sudden spike in oil prices allowed the government to use its oil reserves, which accounted for 10 percent of the world's supply, to increase investment in physical infrastructure and social services. This modernization caused a shift in the population demographic as the number of expatriates skyrocketed. In 1968, prior to government-led development, migrants made up 36.5 percent of the total population of approximately 180,000. As the economy grew, foreign workers came to account for 75 percent of the nearly 1.8 million population in 1995, a disparity that continued to grow throughout the 2000s. (2)

The majority of these migrants come from south and southeast Asia, fleeing crippling poverty and without economic prospects. In 1995, roughly 40 percent of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates were from India and 20 percent were from Pakistan. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines each made up 5 percent of migrant labor. Often on the verge of starvation or needing to support family members, male low-skilled immigrants leave their homes to find work in construction sites or factories, while women turn to work in private residences. An estimated 17 percent of migrant workers end up in the construction sector, while over 60 percent of all migrants emigrating to the United Arab Emirates have only received a high school education or lower. (3)

Migrant workers who choose to labor in the United Arab Emirates often do so not only as a result of desperate conditions, but also trickery from recruiters. Recruitment agencies travel to workers' home states, intentionally targeting areas that have a surplus of labor and are incredibly poor. Once there, they advertise the high-paying positions and advancement opportunities that are supposedly available in the United Arab Emirates, which the workers have no means to verify. Faced with the choice between tough competition at home or the promise of glamor abroad, many individuals are then dupped to use whatever means necessary to reach the United Arab Emirates, bearing the financial and physical risk of the travel themselves. (4)

To work in the United Arab Emirates, migrant laborers must then follow the kafala system, a migration system used in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that establishes a strict legal relationship between domestic employers and foreign workers through a set of controlling practices. (5) Although the UAE government has acknowledged that the system limits worker freedoms, they claim that it is part of a plan centered around the "demographic imbalance theory," that states the government must fight the gradual loss of the Emirati identity due to the size of foreign populace. The UAE government has repeatedly used this excuse that they are protecting indigenous culture to justify why the system cedes power disproportionately to UAE employers in comparison to their worker counterparts. (6) The UAE government has several unstated reasons for maintaining the kafala system in spite of backlash from the international community. Primarily, the current regime's legitimacy largely depends on its ability to provide a high standard of living for the state's elite upper class. Secondly, the kafala system is an effective means of ensuring social order among a population that the state views as potentially volatile. Migrant workers also lack the opportunity to fully integrate into Emirati society because there are no official pathways for long-term residency or citizenship. This preserves government revenue as allowing more permanent residents, especially from impoverished backgrounds, may force the state to expand welfare services. The lack of integration establishes a social barrier between Emiratis and noncitizens, exemplified by how migrant workers are often denied entry into the same malls that they built. (7)

The Kafala System and Recruitment Fees

Even prior to arriving in the United Arab Emirates, migrant workers face oppressive protocols that are designed to subjugate them to Emirati control and increase their vulnerability. First, workers must take out hefty financial loans to secure passage into the state through disreputable agencies and money lenders in their countries of origin. Next, after acquiring transportation, the workers are subjected to the kafala system, which grants native Emiratis and permanent residents broad powers over the migrant population. As a result of these systems, migrant laborers arrive in the United Arab Emirates both financially-desperate and legally powerless, allowing private firms and wealthy citizens to exploit workers for personal gain.

To reach the United Arab Emirates, workers must obtain funds to pay recruitment agencies, which place the workers and their families in debt to predatory money lenders. Workers pay these agencies fees up to 10,000 US dollars to secure transportation into the country. This often forces migrants into heavy debts, which they believe they will be able to pay off through their employment. In actuality, when the workers find that their positions do not pay as advertised, they have no choice but to reside in the country longer to earn enough money to compensate the...

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