Worker exploitation in Dubai

21 Dec 2017


Don't get me wrong. Dubai is a great place. Over the last forty years, it has transformed from a small patch of desert in the Gulf to an international hub. But even in the twenty-first century, human rights exploitation (especially amongst the manual workforce) continues to exist in such a multi-cultural environment. 

I recently spoke to a cleaner of Pakistani descent who explained to me that, in Dubai, there remains a culture of low pay in his sector and large corporations continue to exploit ordinary workers. Employment contracts are basic and give workers few rights, but employers naturally get away with their actions.


It is time the government of Dubai penalised these multi-millionaire transnational corporations for exploiting workers who deserve fair and proper pay. The UAE Federal Labour Law and the Emirate of Dubai do not have the provision for minimum wages. This means that many companies are not obliged to pay decent wages, resulting in workers being deprived of a reasonable salary just in order to boost company profit.

Manual labour jobs are demanding and are poorly paid. The majority of workers in this employment sector are from India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Indonesia, and will typically work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Legal loopholes in the employment contracts result in industry-wide exploitation. Inflation is increasing in Dubai and although wages are generally increasing too, those in manual work experience the same salary over the years. In addition to that, salary increase rates are not guaranteed and not all employers in Dubai give compulsory annual increases. 


The working environment and lifestyle in Dubai is completely different to that in the West. The issue of employment exploitation is under-addressed, and there remains a cultural reluctance to speak out against large corporations or powerful figures due to the threat of redundancy. Because of the nature of their employment contracts, ordinary manual workers face penalties at work if they rebel against their employers.


Whilst company image and reputation may be important for businesses in the UAE, there must also be a balance struck with providing basic workers’ rights. In the UK for instance, an investigation into Sports Direct found workers to be underpaid and expected to work incredibly long hours. It would be nearly impossible to hold a similar review of a warehouse in the UAE, so these harsh realities never make it to the front pages.


According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, migrant workers continue to be subjected to forced labour whilst their complaints of inadequate housing, non-payment of wages and deportation go unanswered. Almost three years later, very little has been done to combat these problems and I fear that this state of affairs will only continue. To add to their worsening plight, many workers have their passports withheld and have to alert their employers months in advance in order to book a flight to their country of origin. The International Labour Organisation has identified the withholding of identity documents, including passports, as a key indicator of forced labour.


Even in 2017, the UAE’s labour law does not guarantee workers’ rights to organise or bargain collectively, so strikes remain illegal. In 2013, two hundred workers from the BK Gulf construction company went on strike to protest about low wages during their work on Saadiyat Island. They were deported after the strike.


But the problem isn't just the large corporations or the failure of the government to protect its workers. There is a desperate need for cultural change in the judicial system, which remains a hindrance to the development of workers’ rights in the UAE. Labourers and manual workers face the risk of deportation and termination of work should they rebel against the company's management. They are under heavy pressure from their employers to stay silent, living under the constant threat of non-payment of wages and visa cancellations. 


But where can workers go? Both political parties and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and undergo government censorship before publishing any material. UAE authorities have used the 2012 cybercrime law to prosecute those Twitter users and other social media critics of the government. Social media crackdown is enshrined in legislation and disagreeing with the government of Dubai can lead to imprisonment.


The government of Dubai must amend the legal loopholes, penalise companies guilty of mistreating workers and listen to their concerns. This will require cultural, political and judicial change, something needs mass support and global coverage to be effective.


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