The United Arab Emirates has once again come under the scrutiny of human rights groups after allegations that three British men were tortured during a police interrogation earlier this year. The three Brits, who have been imprisoned in Dubai for possession of a cannabis substitute, which is highly illegal in the United Arab Emirates, were allegedly subjected to electrocution and verbal threats. Both the Dubai Police and the court have denied the allegations, but the issue continues to be a hot topic for the international press. Although the aforementioned incident is grisly in its own right and deserves media attention, the most pressing issue concerning human rights in UAE is not about the life or death of three tourists who were up for a party; it is about the ghastly conditions migrant workers face in the ‘modern’ Arab state and their lack of fundamental rights.

Image courtesy of Paul Keller, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Paul Keller, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Known for the oil-rich cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates is the capitalist mecca of the Middle East and boasts countless modern architectural wonders, including Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.  The cities are also tax-free havens, which not only attract oil tycoons of the Middle East, but also Western and Asian investors who are keen on expanding their fortune, as well as expatriates from various first world countries who have come to seek their own goldmine in the new ‘land of dreams.’ Complete with shopping malls and luxury hotels, the cities also serve as an adult playground to the expats. However, the promising and glamorous façade of the two cities are supported by an underclass consisting of immigrant workers from third world countries, whose dreams of paradise have not yet been realised. These workers are in charge of facilitating the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy and Western, by working in the service or labour industry as maids, labourers, builders, and taxi drivers.

Most of these migrant workers are from poorer countries in the region such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, or Southeast Asian countries known for exporting workers such as the Philippines. Unlike their first-world counterparts, they rarely can afford the delights or fabulous accommodation the cities have to offer. Labourers or builders are mostly quarantined to cramped and unbearably hot rooms in concrete building blocks miles away from the city centre, and are hauled back and forth to build and rebuild the city in buses or until recently, cattle trucks. As a reward for their 14 hour-long work days in the sweltering desert, they are paid only around £90 per month, compared to £900; the lowest average of monthly salaries for a Western office worker in 2010 [1].

Their working conditions are as deplorable as their accommodation, as Emirati employers are known for their negligence towards safety precautions. During the first two months of this year alone, there have been numerous fatalities. Two 21-year- old men died from asphyxiation and one other was injured, while performing maintenance on a water tank at an industrial company in Abu Dhabi. They were said to have inhaled poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulphide and methane. However, instead of apologising for the men’s deaths, the company has maintained that these men were not provided safety equipment as they were not required to and had cleaned the tank of their ‘own volition’ [2]. The company was subsequently not convicted of neglect; as would have been the case in most countries of equal wealth and repute, but was ordered to allocate a compensation of around £70,000 to the families of the deceased and £1,800 to the injured.

Although they live in the comfort of their employers’ homes within the cities’ boundaries, the living and working environments for maids and cleaners are no better. Due to the fact that they are housed in their employers’ private property, they are more susceptible to violence and mistreatment from their bosses. Employers often take their passports and essentially have the freedom to decide when to pay them and to dictate their day-to-day engagements. This abusive practice is made possible by the absence and under-enforcement of protective legislation for domestic workers and the lack of monitoring of the recruitment agencies that are in charge of hiring the maids from their home countries. Without regulations, reports of employers physically abusing their hired help are frighteningly commonplace. For example, earlier this year, an African maid was beaten to death by her employer in Dubai, and the other housekeeper in the household was bribed with approximately £9000 to keep quiet about the incident. Moreover, the other maid herself was subjected to beatings and was forced to wear a headscarf to hide her apparent injuries.

Consequently, perhaps due to the appalling conditions and the added sense of entrapment and stress at workplace for migrant workers, the UAE is notorious for its soaring suicide rate amongst its migrant workers. Furthermore, one should also note that majority of actual abuses against migrant workers go unreported every year and that discrimination against migrant workers are normalised in the two cities, as well as other wealthy countries in the region, such as Kuwait and Lebanon.

As a response to criticisms by the EU and international human rights groups, the UAE hastily established a human rights committee last December, with the intention of “enhancing the protection of and respectful human rights and fundamental freedoms, in accordance with the standards of human rights and constitutional law, and international agreements the country is in.” [3] Essentially, the new human rights committee is to put forth new measures and regulations to protect the migrant workers, but their conditions will not improve significantly unless the mentality and the attitude of the employers change for good. Nevertheless, as exploitation and discrimination against workers have been normalised during the span of twenty years, it would be difficult to see immediate improvements in the treatment of the underclass in the UAE.

[1] http://www.dubaifaqs.com/salaries-dubai.php

[2] http://www.migrant-rights.org/2013/03/02/migrant-abuse-february-roundup/

[3] http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/politics/protect-and-respect-to-be-mission-for-new-uae-human-rights-committee