Slavery was abolished in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1963, but a culture of exploitation of low income laborers remains prevalent fifty-three years later.
More than 88.5 percent of UAE residents are foreign workers, and they fill ninety-nine percent of the low-skilled job sector. Though slavery was formally abolished, a form of it remains in practice through a system of foreign worker sponsorship that directly ties workers to individual employers with little to no government oversight.
Known as the “kafala” system, this form of foreign worker sponsorship is the basis for the issues workers face in Arab Gulf states. It is a mechanism by which the government delegates responsibilities and oversight for migrant workers to private citizens and companies. Employers maintain rights over their workers until their employment contract expires or until the employers give permission to the workers to leave. The terms of the contract remain merely a suggestion for the employers. Oftentimes, the workers are not given benefits like time off or adequate compensation pursuant to the contract. The kafala custom essentially creates a form of slavery, as protections do not exist for the workers. No avenue exists for them to dispute the terms of the employment contracts or hold their employers accountable for breach.
Domestic workers are predominantly female migrants from Asia and Africa. Many of the approximately 300,000 domestic workers face physical, sexual or emotional abuse, little to no payment, the denial of food and medical treatment, and remain at the mercy of their employers until their employment contract ends. One woman reported that her boss began hitting her after two weeks of employment, and would sometimes pull out tufts of her hair. Regardless, the woman stayed, hoping to be paid for her work, but she never was. Often, the abuse leads to forced labor and trafficking.
When domestic workers do want to leave their employers, options are limited. Domestic workers must request permission to leave, even from abusive employers. Thus, the options include completing the contract term or having their employer sign a “no-objection” certificate, releasing them from their contract before it ends. Many workers try to escape their employers, but, if caught, they could be returned, where they will face more abuse.
The UAE passed and began implementing labor law reforms in January 2016 that aim to ultimately abolish the kafala system for migrant laborers. The reforms aim to prevent contract substitution, the practice under which foreign workers sign one contract when leaving their country, and upon arriving to the UAE, are forced to renegotiate to lower wages. The reforms also address workers’ rights to switch employers and prevent involuntary labor because the contracts will now be held with the labor ministry rather than with the employers, so there will be more oversight by the government. The reforms show immense progress for workers’ rights in the UAE; however, these reforms leave a gaping hole through which most female foreign workers fall through. The reforms do not apply to domestic workers, who make up fifteen percent of the foreign worker population, and who remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
The Convention on Domestic Workers, which the UAE has yet to ratify, requires domestic workers to have rights equal to workers in other sectors of the labor force. It also puts the obligation on the state to protect domestic workers from abuse and exploitation. Although the UAE has not ratified this important convention to protect domestic workers, it is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Because domestic workers are predominantly women, the exclusion of their protection under the labor reforms inherently violates Articles 11(1)(c) and 11(1)(f) of CEDAW. The former ensures employed women’s rights to benefits, which the kafala system prevents by not allowing workers to dispute their employers’ nonperformance under the contract. The latter ensures the right to protection of health and safety conditions in the workplace, which is compromised when workers cannot leave their abusive work environment.
In order for the current practice to change, the UAE should extend the labor law reforms to cover migrant domestic workers. These new provisions would allow domestic workers to be protected from being paid lower wages than they were initially promised. This is because the provisions require that state approval for hiring a new migrant worker only be given once the offer of employment is signed by a recruit in their own country. Also, the state must implement an appropriate system through which these workers can bring a cause of action against their employer over the nature of their employment. This would provide added security to domestic workers with abusive employers. The United Arab Emirates should ultimately adopt the Convention on Domestic Workers and raise the bar for the treatment of humans within every sector of the labor force.