LOS ANGELES — With evidence mounting that thousands of migrant laborers are being exploited, the International Trade Union Confederation has called upon the United Nations to investigate the plight of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates.
As the UAE is a member of the UN’s International Labor Organization, the formal complaint against the state warns it that it “is in serious breach of its legal obligations” regarding agreements against forced labor, and the ITUC charges the UAE with the failure to “maintain a legal framework adequate to protect the rights of migrant workers” that adheres to agreements requiring the eradication of forced labor.
The United Arab Emirates has long attracted attention for its mistreatment and exploitation of its migrant labor force, which in fact constitutes the majority of Dubai’s workforce. Because cities like Dubai are quickly growing and rapidly globalizing hubs of trade and business, migrant workers come to the UAE in search of slightly higher wages and more job opportunities, leaving behind homelands where jobs yield very low wages and are few and far between.
Employers take advantage of migrant workers by holding their passports until employees complete their labor contracts with the company. Although UAE companies claim that passport holding is done in the interest of maintaining order and preventing crime, it is an illegal form of control over workers. Passports are often the only form of official identification that migrant workers possess, which leaves them at the mercy of the company.
“By taking their passports, employers are taking away the laborers’ freedom to leave and their only form of identity. Companies are also using the passports as a tool to wield corrupt power over their workers,” said Tamara Cesaretti, a senior at the University of Southern California who spent time this summer in Dubai, researching the plight of migrant workers in the UAE.
With no education regarding their rights, migrant workers are largely unaware of their rights to keep their passports and to reclaim them, if already taken, from their employers. The few laborers that are aware of these rights keep silent in fear of losing their jobs, pay cuts or retaliation from the company.
As many of the migrant workers are from countries in Southeast Asia or Africa, where jobs are very scarce and pay less than in the UAE, both they and their employers know that migrant laborers are extremely easily replaced. There is always an abundance of migrants waiting to find jobs in the UAE, putting employers in a position to exploit and leaving migrant workers with no choice but to accept the situation, unable to complain or fight terrible working conditions.
“A good amount of workers end up running away from the companies they work for, leaving their passports behind. These runaway workers go to their consulate with the hope of being sent back to their home country,” said Cesaretti. “The consulate only provides them with a one-way visa home. They are not given a new passport, and they are blacklisted from the United Arab Emirates, never allowed to return.”
Due to exploitative employer practices like this, the ITUC has called upon the U.N. to closely examine the situation of thousands of migrant workers in the UAE. The ITUC is asking that the U.N.’s International Labor Organization investigate the welfare of workers in Abu Dhabi, whose terrible working conditions starkly contrast the extravagant museums and luxury resorts they are constructing.
“Right throughout the Gulf there is the degradation of the rights of human beings. This is an employment arrangement that can only be described as evil. It’s an environment where people feel comfortable owning the destinies of other human beings,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, calling migrant workers’ welfare in the UAE an “international scandal.”
– Annie Jung