With about 90 percent of the UAE’s over 9-million-strong population consisting of foreign nationals—most of whom are low-wage and semi-skilled workers from Africa, Asia, and elsewhere in the Middle East—the country’s economy is heavily dependent on migrant workers.1 Labor migration to the UAE is regulated by a private sponsorship system known as kafala, which has existed in the Gulf Cooperation Council states and other Middle Eastern countries for decades. The laws and procedures of the kafala system vary from state to state.
Like most of its neighbors, the UAE has engaged in a range of reforms over the last decade to enhance labor mobility and rights compliance for migrant workers. But the kafala system remains a critical ingredient in the state’s capacity to ensure political control in a situation where only a minority of the population has citizenship rights and where legal and social power rests with a small group of royal families. What is less well understood is the system’s role in creating a social contract between the state and the citizen, which effectively promises the latter a ready source of revenue and significant control over migrant labor in return for reduced social and political freedoms.
With about 90 percent of the UAE’s over 9-million-strong population consisting of foreign nationals . . . the country’s economy is heavily dependent on migrant workers.
UAE authorities have long viewed the unequal legal status of migrant workers as a matter of national security.2 They argue that this has enabled the state to preserve its national identity, provide significant economic and social advantages to individuals with citizenship, and maintain a safe and stable society anchored in the rule of law.3 However, significant political and other restrictions are imposed on UAE nationals. Emiratis are not allowed to form or join a union; collective bargain; strike; or exercise the rights of peaceful assembly, association, and protest. Prominent human rights defenders have been abducted (enforced disappearance) and prosecuted after making even seemingly minor demands, such as greater freedom of expression and political freedom.4
Labor Reforms in the UAE
The UAE has passed a range of legal reforms and initiatives aimed at modernizing its labor markets and respecting international labor conventions. These initiatives include efforts to regularize the migrant labor recruitment market and to improve the skills-matching and training of prospective migrant worker employees seeking to enter the UAE jobs market. Successive labor reforms over the past five years have included removing the requirement of seeking an employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country (known, respectively, as a No Objection Certificate and an Exit Permit) and increasing worker access to grievance remedy and labor dispute resolution mechanisms.5 In addition, in 2007, the UAE set up a National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking to oversee implementation of its 2006 antitrafficking law and to coordinate government efforts to combat trafficking. Departments in the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Interior also deal with protection against trafficking.
The UAE has passed a range of legal reforms and initiatives aimed at modernizing its labor markets and respecting international labor conventions.
Labor reforms have led to some improvements in labor rights protection, but significant gaps in their implementation and enforcement remain and labor exploitation is still a common practice in both public and private enterprises. As the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on trafficking in persons has pointed out, the high demand for low-skill work in the UAE has created a lucrative opportunity for criminal involvement in the market of foreign workers.6 There are several reported cases of women and men voluntarily traveling to the UAE for work but then being subjected to sex trafficking or forced labor there or in other Gulf countries.7 Despite the reforms, the kafala system continues to give employers a high degree of control over workers, thereby increasing workers’ vulnerability to trafficking, forced labor, and other exploitation.
Migrant workers who are trafficked into forced labor are typically recruited by agents who charge high recruitment fees in exchange for secure work permits and employment in the UAE.
Migrant workers who are trafficked into forced labor are typically recruited by agents who charge high recruitment fees in exchange for secure work permits and employment in the UAE. However, once in the UAE, victims are made to sign contracts they often do not understand and that include conditions different from what they were promised. They are then forced to work long hours in cramped labor camps. Wages are low, payments are made infrequently, and living and sanitary conditions are poor. The workers inevitably fall into situations of debt bondage and find themselves compelled to accept the terms and conditions imposed on them. This is particularly common among construction, domestic, and lower-level service workers.8
Investigation and Prosecution of Labor Exploitation
The UN special rapporteur noted in 2013 that the UAE primarily views trafficking as a problem concerning women and children and commercial sex exploitation. She stated that this may be owing to the country’s policy of delinking trafficking and labor migration and an unwillingness to intervene in situations of trafficking for labor exploitation. The rapporteur said, “Emirati authorities unequivocally stated that ‘labour issues should not be linked to human trafficking and should be treated separately.’”9
Unfortunately, these views have not changed over the years. The U.S. State Department’s “2019 Trafficking in Persons” report noted that the UAE government rarely investigated violations of Emirati laws that are often trafficking indicators—including passport confiscation, delayed or nonpayment of wages, and contract switching—as possible trafficking crimes.10 Instead, the government often treated the cases as regulatory violations and either imposed administrative fines or revoked the business license. In 2018, the UAE did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials complicit in trafficking crimes.
The U.S. State Department’s “2019 Trafficking in Persons” report noted that the UAE government rarely investigated violations of Emirati laws that are often trafficking indicators.
According to publically available information, the government’s protection efforts appear to focus almost exclusively on victims of sex trafficking. The government’s relevant webpage details how to report trafficking and obtain support—in reference to mainly women and children.11 It mentions Ewa’a shelters for women and children victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation; the shelters are run by the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, the Women’s Protection Centre of the Social Services Department of Government of Sharjah, and the General Directorate for Human Rights Protection that provides support “to women and children who are victims of human trafficking.” There are no specific references to support for trafficking victims subjected to labor exploitation.
In its 2018 “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that shortly after the UAE introduced its antitrafficking law in 2006, the number of trafficking victims the government detected increased, potentially indicating greater attention to the issue.12 However, according to UNODC statistics, all of the eighty-eight victims detected between 2014 and 2017 were women or girls and most were subjected to sexual exploitation.13
Labor Rights and Wider Social Reform
The confiscation of passports, long hours of work, poor working and living environments, and the withholding of wages—among other labor market conditions—contribute to the expanding demand for trafficked migrants and create lucrative opportunities for recruiters, exploiters, and brokers. However, as mentioned earlier, the U.S. State Department’s 2019 report noted that UAE authorities continue to deal with labor law violations administratively and do not usually investigate such cases as possible trafficking crimes or refer them for criminal prosecution.14 The government also does not enforce its prohibition on employers withholding workers’ passports, which remains a pervasive problem.15
A crucial element in the state’s stability has been the link between the kafala system and the wider social contract between states and citizens. Although citizens face restrictions on their human rights, the state offers them a wide arrange of social benefits, such as generous housing benefits, access to free education and medical services, preferential treatment in the workforce, generally higher salaries, and more.16 By contrast, with few exceptions, virtually all foreign workers must have an employer sponsor who is a citizen or resident of the UAE.17 In most circumstances, the sponsor must be the majority owner of the enterprise. This creates a significant power imbalance between the sponsor who is also legally the worker’s employer and the migrant worker.
Although citizens face restrictions on their human rights, the state offers them a wide arrange of social benefits, such as generous housing benefits, access to free education and medical services, preferential treatment in the workforce, generally higher salaries, and more.
In practice, it is common for migrant workers to manage and operate the business on behalf of the sponsor. However, the sponsor expects to receive the majority share of the profits and may step in to resolve any disputes or to reach new agreements. The arrangement gives the sponsor control over the employee, creating a power relationship that has similar characteristics to that between the state and citizen. In effect, the state gives citizens rights and powers over migrants and the wealth generated from enterprises operated by these migrants in exchange for significant restrictions in civil and political freedoms. Despite these restrictions, citizens enjoy the wealth generated by the economy and preserve their social status above migrant workers—regardless of whether these workers are highly skilled or critical to the functioning of the state and the economy. Given the benefits Emirati citizens derive from this labor system, any effort by the UAE government to reform it in line with international standards and labor conventions will be unpopular. Citizens would see the reform as a threat to their privileges in an otherwise restrictive society.
Given the benefits Emirati citizens derive from this labor system, any effort by the UAE government to reform it in line with international standards and labor conventions will be unpopular.
Nevertheless, the UAE has, like all of the Gulf states, been moving toward increasing indigenous participation in the workforce in order to reduce its overdependence on foreign workers.18 This poses a potential challenge to the dominant role of the kafala system, as increasing numbers of Emiratis would become employees and not just employers and business owners. But in the absence of union participation and wider civil and political freedoms, the preferential treatment citizens enjoy and the control they exert over migrant workers will remain key elements of the social contract in the UAE. For the state, the challenge will be balancing the need to maintain a social contract based on an imbalance in labor relations in favor of employers and business owners, who are overwhelmingly citizens, with its international obligations to respect core aspects of human rights and labor rights and the need to respond to a global market increasingly sensitive to rights protections. Without wider civil and political reforms, however, it will be difficult for the state to modify a labor regime that leaves migrant workers exposed to human trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation.
1 Riaz Hassan, “The UAE’s Unsustainable Nation Building,” YaleGlobal Online, April 24, 2018, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/uaes-unsustainable-nation-building.
2 Noora Lori, “National Security and the Management of Migrant Labor: A Case Study of the United Arab Emirates,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 20, no. 3–4 (2011): 315–37, https://www.academia.edu/35187679/National_Security_and_the_Management_of_Migrant_Labor_A_Case_Study_of_the_United_Arab_Emirates.
4 “UAE: End Relentless Crackdown on Critics Ahead of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix,” Amnesty International, November 19, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/uae-end-relentless-crackdown-on-critics-ahead-of-abu-dhabi-grand-prix/.
5 “Combating Human Trafficking,” Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, Washington, DC, accessed December 5, 2019, https://www.uae-embassy.org/about-uae/human-rights/combating-human-trafficking.
6 United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “United Arab Emirates: UN Expert Urges Further Action to Protect Victims of Trafficking,” April 17, 2012, https://newsarchive.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12074&LangID=E.
7 Thessa Lageman, “Dubai in United Arab Emirates a Centre of Human Trafficking and Prostitution,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 20, 2016, https://www.smh.com.au/world/dubai-in-united-arab-emirates-an-epicentre-of-human-trafficking-and-prostitution-20160115-gm6mdl.html; “‘I Already Bought You’: Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates,” Human Rights Watch, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/uae1014_forUpload.pdf.
8 Shaheen Pasha, “Dubai’s Towering Skyscrapers Are Built by a ‘Horrifically Exploitative Labor System,’” Quartz, May 27, 2013, https://qz.com/88278/dubais-towering-skyscrapers-are-built-by-a-horrifically-exploitative-labor-system/; and “2015 Trafficking in Persons Report: United Arab Emirates,” U.S. Department of State, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/245365.pdf.
9 “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo: Mission to the United Arab Emirates,” UN Human Rights Council, February 22, 2013, 6–7, https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/51aefc064.pdf.
10 “2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: United Arab Emirates,” U.S. Department of State, accessed December 5, 2019, https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-trafficking-in-persons-report-2/united-arab-emirates/.
11 “Combatting Human Trafficking,” Government of the United Arab Emirates, https://government.ae/en/about-the-uae/human-rights-in-the-uae/combatting-human-trafficking.
12 “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018 https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2018/GLOTiP_2018_BOOK_web_small.pdf.
13 “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018: North Africa and the Middle East,” UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2018/GLOTIP_2018_NORTH_AFRICA_AND_THE_MIDDLE_EAST.pdf.
14 “2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: United Arab Emirates,” U.S. Department of State.
16 Aya Batrawy, “Despite Wealth Gap, Ordinary Emiratis Ride UAE Gravy Train,” Times of Israel, November 4, 2014, http://www.timesofisrael.com/despite-wealth-gap-ordinary-emiratis-ride-uae-gravy-train/.
17 The exceptions are in special economic zones, where residents who are not citizens may also be sponsors and the state may also waive the requirement of having a local sponsor. See Samir Kantaria et al., “Employment & Labour Law in the UAE,” Lexology, October 8, 2018, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=31e69b6a-4b6e-4f1d-8812-1843afdf5a0b; “Recruiting in Free Zones,” Government of the United Arab Emirates, https://www.government.ae/en/information-and-services/business/recruiting/recruiting-in-free-zones; and “Starting a Business in a Free Zone,” Government of the United Arab Emirates, https://www.government.ae/en/information-and-services/business/starting-a-business-in-a-free-zone.
18 “Emiratisation,” Government of the United Arab Emirates, accessed December 5, 2019, https://www.government.ae/en/information-and-services/jobs/vision-2021-and-emiratisation/emiratisation-.