UAE No Paradise for Migrant Workers
A glittering metropolis rising from the desert has all the makings of a mirage, and many heading to the United Arab Emirates for work know to keep it that way.
"It's part of an agreement," says Karen Young, who was a political science professor at the American University of Sharjah from 2009 to 2014. "Foreigners contribute to society but, as outsiders, are not part of that society."
The UAE is the most densely migrant-populated country in the world. About 90 percent of the UAE's 9 million people are foreign-born, most working on temporary employment contracts in a range of white-collar, blue-collar and service industry jobs. Only a handful of migrants have been granted citizenship since the country gained independence in 1971.
The lack of formal integration programs and otherwise transitory nature of work in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Coast nations suggest the commoditization of labor, trading the dreams of non-nationals on temporary contracts for a stronger national infrastructure.
But the current system proves lucrative for most employers and employees, experts say, and the migrant workers know what they're signing up for.
Young says she felt welcome in that society, especially in the classroom that remained an open space for discussion and debate. But there was division. If an Emirati national wanted her job, they would have it.
"Preferential hiring that in the U.S. would be grounds for a lawsuit is perfectly legal," she says.
As Emirati national interests continue to outweigh those of individual workers, though, new questions are being asked about migrant identity and rights as the stratification between nationals and non-nationals deepens.
"Dubai has an economy that's based on a mirage," says Syed Ali, sociologist and author of "Dubai: Gilded Cage."
There is an "unspoken contract" between a place that has very little natural resources and the foreign labor that comes in to fill that gap, he says, and it works as long as everybody follows the unspoken rules. "The deal is to come and work and enjoy the good life – here or once you get home to the money you remitted – as long as you don't engage in anything remotely political."
Across the UAE, the formal part of the labor agreement comes in the form of the kafala, or sponsorship, system. Employment visas for migrant workers are sponsored by Emirati individuals or companies, leaving the protections of a centralized government system behind.
Amnesty International and other humanitarian agencies have put a spotlight on the hardships migrant workers have faced, including exploitation of construction workers and unequal protection of women and domestic workers.
Last year, laws were put into place that were meant to prevent contract substitution that forces migrant workers to accept lower wages than they were promised, but reforms have generally been slow in coming.
But much like falling oil prices forced the UAE to diversify its economy beyond its first major commodity, experts say internal and external pressures are pushing the young nation to gradually reform its approach to its second major resource: labor.
"A culture shift is beginning," says Young, now a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "People are thinking, 'How many people does it take to get me a coffee at Starbucks?' and 'How many people do I need standing around me at home?'"
Despite having the most migrant-heavy population in the world, the UAE is very closed to granting citizenship, which studies have found raise wages for both natives and immigrants. Par for an Arab nation, Emirati citizenship is passed solely through the father and marriage between nationals is encouraged.
According to a recent survey, more than 80 percent of Emiratis say their country should be more open to immigration, which is significantly more than the global average of about 60 percent.
But the power lies with policymakers and employers, and recent policy shifts seem to further segregate nationals from foreigners.
"There's no scenario in which the UAE wants more migrants to become nationals," Young says. "The state's priority is its citizens; they take the resources they're given and make them profitable for nationals."
The Emirati government is currently debating whether migrant workers in domestic roles like housekeepers and child care should be covered by the national labor code or under a separate migrant labor law.
In a review of domestic work legislation across the Gulf Coast nations, researchers Froilan T. Malit, Jr. and Safa Ghafoor found that policy measures, despite ongoing review, are not coherent or strong enough to mitigate labor violations, undermining both the effectiveness and stability of institutions.
Malit, who has worked in the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, says that some responsibility lies with the migrants' home countries.
"At the origin level, they are inflating the opportunities," says the native of the Philippines, a country that is one of the UAE's top sources of migrant workers. "[Emirati] employers pay recruitment agents thousands of dollars per worker, so they shape [the migrants'] false promises to lure them to come."
A 2016 report for the International Organization for Migration by Malit and George Naufal found that the lack of bilateral labor agreements and government policy coordination are major factors contributing to asymmetric information and few avenues to protect workers in the kafala system.
Other recent efforts to sequester migrant workers involve job contracts that include training in their home country, effectively bolstering human capital, a person's specific skills and experience, to be transferred to the UAE at a lower cost than it would be domestically. In some pilot programs, the transfer of a person is even more explicit, as they allow for a national to shadow a skilled migrant worker before replacing them.
"The government rationale in this is to raise the caliber of employees in certain fields and raise the wages so that eventually the jobs become attractive to nationals," says Young.
There were a substantial number of layoffs in construction last year, and nationals are replacing foreign-born executives in firms such as the national oil company and sovereign wealth fund.
Over the decades, the UAE has seen shifts in the places where its migrants come from, too. In the 1980s, migrants from Southeast Asia came into favor because they were less politically charged, Young says.
Despite the divisions, migrants have found a way to make a country that refuses to grant them citizenship feel like home.
Neha Vora, author of "Impossible Citizens: Dubai's Indian Diaspora" and associate professor of anthropology at Lafayette College, argues that it is probably easier for Hindi- or Urdu-speakers to get around many neighborhoods in the UAE than Arabic-speakers. For Indian migrants and many others, communities with familiar language, clothes, food and religious spaces barely feel like a substitute for home; Bollywood movies even open on the same day, Vora says.
"Comparing the UAE to places like the U.S. or Europe assumes that people are coming to work and settle permanently and therefore there's a need to help them integrate into some kind of majority culture," she says. "But the question is really, what are they integrating into?"