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Dubai: a city of temporary migrants

This article describe the situation for the non-citizen, migrant majority of the population of Dubai, the principal city of the Gulf region
© European University Institute

Dubai is sometimes considered a city of the future: a high-tech metropolis and global transport hub with the world’s tallest skyscraper, artificial islands built in the shapes of palm trees and state-of-the-art leisure and cultural attractions.

With more than 2.5 million inhabitants, today’s city would not exist without international migration. Migrants not only constitute more than 80% of the population but are the people who literally built the city up from its humble origins as a small town in the 1970s, and the people who keep the city functioning on a daily basis. Most of the city’s construction workers are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, while domestic and care services are provided mainly by women from countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

However, while the high labour demand in Dubai offers greater employment opportunities for migrants than in many other regions of the world, it also comes with a down side. As already noted by Chimnay Tumbe, foreign workers have no access to United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizenship. As a result, low-level workers in particular tend to be employed on a short-term basis, have few or no labour rights and often experience poor working and living conditions.

Since the 1970s, as in other Gulf states, the relationship between employers and migrant workers has been regulated by the kafala system of sponsorship. This system requires foreign workers to obtain direct sponsorship from employers (i.e. UAE citizens) for work and residence. It means that migrant workers are dependent on their employers for entering and leaving Dubai. It also increases a migrant’s risk of physical and mental abuse and economic exploitation without the possibility of taking legal action. In fact, there have been countless cases of employers confiscating workers’ passports and effectively blackmailing migrants to accept harsh working conditions.

Human rights organisations and global media campaigns have called for the abolition of the kafala system, arguing that it results in a form of ‘unfree labour’.

Partly in response to these criticisms, the United Arab Emirates government has recently moved to introduce labour reforms. In early 2016 it issued a decree to protect migrant workers from becoming forced labourers although this was not applicable to domestic workers employed in private households. In September 2017, the UAE approved its first law on domestic workers, which included a number of entitlements such as one day of paid rest per week, possession of their personal identity documents, and exemption from all litigation fees should a dispute with an employer go to court.

While national institutions have slowly begun to respond to the poor working conditions in Dubai and other Gulf cities, migrant workers have long adopted their own survival strategies so as to ensure that the possibility of earning higher wages outweighs the range of difficulties that face them.

In order to reap the benefits of employment in a city like Dubai, they typically depend on extensive social networks. These networks take the form of organised national associations as well as informal community and family connections. Moreover, with the consolidation of the world’s largest temporary migration corridor between South Asia and the Gulf states as well as the establishment of business and trading links between the two regions, most migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are now better informed about the potential difficulties awaiting them and are therefore more prepared to deal with them when they arrive.

© European University Institute
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