To the Middle East to Work, or Not?

To the Middle East to Work, or Not: 

Labor Trafficking, Migrant Workers, and Governance

Many nations in the gulf area are developing at a break-neck pace, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, which is rich in oil resources. With such a fast rate of development in the Middle East, there is an overwhelming need for migrant workers. The conditions migrant workers face while in migration and while working can resemble bondage, slave labor and or illicit human trafficking. Many nations and organizations have made progress in creating laws and regulations that in theory should create secure conditions for migrant workers, but in reality, the conditions are only getting worse. Nations often lack the will to define labor trafficking and working conditions as a human rights problem, and instead focusing on criminal organizations and illegal migration. Once in the host country, migrant workers are often subjected to slave labor conditions that are solidified in ambiguous regulation and tribal-like politics. With such deplorable conditions and an absence of any recourse, migrant workers are more frequently looking toward suicide as a means of escape. Governance in the Gulf areas aimed at protecting migrant workers from labor trafficking and slave-like working conditions lacks effectiveness.

International Labor Trafficking

Intergovernmental organizations have created norms and conventions specifically designed to ensure the protection of human rights from employers and those involved in the migrant workforce. The International Labor Organization Conventions 97 and 143, and the Migrant Workers Convention, both of which give a dialogue on international rights, have been ratified by most participating nations but lack active enforcement against those who violate labor and contract law. Merely ratifying the conventions does not show concrete progress if little has been done to curtail the behavior of those in the migrant labor workforce. It raises the question of intent and focus toward the wellbeing of migrant workers. It also shows that industrialized countries lack the will to take trafficking and migrant workers’ rights seriously. Kathy Richards in The Trafficking of Migrant Workers summed it up by stating “to date, none of the industrialized countries that are largely responsible for this mistreatment of migrants have expressed interest in indicating a commitment to the treaty” (149). Richards goes even further commenting on the challenges to strike up a conversation regarding migrant rights let alone enforcing laws that have been ratified (149).

Nationalism can sway the mindset of authority to view the worker as part of the problem. Focusing on criminal organizations and illegal immigration can be seen as a lack of will and as disregarding the human rights’ violations that are common with labor trafficking and migrant workers. This idea can be used to ignore the complicated process of disseminating human rights’ violations and cause further abuses to occur throughout the process of detention and deportation. Richards speaks to this issue recalling that “many states have continued to contextualize trafficking migration in a framework of combating crime and criminality” (149-150). Those who oppose the view that migrant workers are not always complicit argue that the worker willingly accepts the conditions of migration in order to seek foreign work, therefore, any violation of human rights is at the fault of the worker. This argument can be correct in certain cases, but there is not enough focus on those who are unwillingly being trafficked. Alternatively, as Richards explains: “What is significant is that theoretical discussions of the nuances of difference between a smuggled, trafficked, or otherwise transported migrant worker routinely neglect the application of the rights discourse that protects the human rights of all migrant workers (153).”

What Richards is stating is that regardless of those willing or unwilling, any violation constitutes a violation of human rights. Any international regulation regarding trafficking is irrelevant if a nation views the problem in the paradigm of crime. Labor trafficking not only needs to be seen as organized crime but also the human rights violation it represents. As nations continue to integrate, the demand for migrant workers and labor is only going to increase the potential for trafficking.

The international community is not looking in the right places to define and curtail the trafficking of people. Organized crime and illegal immigration are argued to be the focus, but many legal forms of labor mobility can lead to violating human rights. The case of Haima G., a 17-year-old Filipina, represents a drastic form of labor trafficking. Ray Jureidini in Trafficking and Contract Migrant Workers in the Middle East explains her situation: 17-year-old Filipina Haima G.’s situation amounts to trafficking and conditions of slavery, as relatives deceived Haima G. about her promised job abroad, her agent sexually harassed her, and her employer threatened to return her to her abusive agent if she complained. Her employer sexually assaulted her and retained her passport, and locked her in the workplace so that she could not escape (qtd. in Human Rights Watch, 2008: 43).

This case does not involve any violations of trafficking laws but shows that employment agents need to be examined to determine if greater regulation is warranted. Many cases involving children often start with the consent of parents that are deceived by agents. There are also cases where the agents might not be aware of the true conditions employees are subjected to, and therefore, miscommunicate the job. Purposely deceiving or unknowingly communicating conditions all amount to the same thing—the method of moving labor needs to be evaluated in order to regulate an industry that can easily benefit from the violation of human rights.

Globalization has brought about unprecedented growth in the 20th century, but that growth has been highly uneven. This phenomenon has led to labor-deficient countries importing cheap labor. Specifically within the Middle East, workers are imported for domestic work and construction. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has a staggering percentage of foreign workers compared to nationals. The authors in Enforcing Migrant Workers’ Rights in the United Arab Emirates state that “95 percent of the UAE’s labor pools, some 2.7 million workers, are migrants” (Keane and McGeehan 82). Neoliberal views that have opened access to the free movement of goods and capital have failed to apply those theories to labor. Bina Fernandez in Exploring the Ethical-Political Framework of Justice to the Analysis of Inequalities Faced by Migrant Workers argues that “proponents of neoliberal globalization rarely acknowledge that theories of benefits of free trade assume the free movement of labor, along with the free movement of capital and goods” (86). We have yet to see an unrestricted movement of labor in the same order that we have seen with production. Because it is mostly the poor migrating to rich nations, restricting migration is a lack of oversight that actually propels labor trafficking.

Fernandez also argues that disregarding open migration closes out any benefits to equality that open migration might afford (86). When the hurdles one faces gaining international employment are so high, that worker might be more willingly to look outside of legal means. The same can be said about those who move labor from one country to the next. Just as the drug trade does, organizations bypass laws by clandestinely moving product over borders, so to do traffickers of labor. If labor movement was as free as capital and goods, it could counteract the need for black market means. Therefore, if there were not as much of a need for labor trafficking, by default there would not be the detrimental abuse of human rights that migrant workers face while on their journey to the host country.

Sovereign rights can play into intergovernmental organization lacking any real authority to ensure the wellbeing of migrant workers. While it might seem that organizations like the International Labor Organization or the United Nations supersede a participating country’s sovereignty, that is not the case and leads to a patchwork of agreements. Fernandez confirms this argument in her quote “an increasingly complex array of bilateral, regional, and inter-regional institutions enabling states to selectively engage in different forms of informal cooperation” (qtd. in Betts 2008:2). This patchwork of cooperation causes less powerful nations to succumb to the will of a more powerful state (Fernandez 97).

A sovereign nation is actually in a position to tailor the laws and regulations they follow by using bilateral, regional, or intergovernmental agreements. There is not an overarching base to which these agreements are founded. This, unfortunately, leaves a migrant worker without any defined route to take to ensure their rights are maintained. While sovereign rights are paramount to the validity of a nation, where does a migrant worker go for help? Do they go to the host country, their home country or an international organization? Most workers are fighting for survival and not given the access to that kind of knowledge, let alone where to go to find it. Even more drastic, once they get to their host country the laws that have been tailored-made might allow that country to legally violate a migrant worker. Fernandez expands this idea arguing “while migrants may be subject to the administrative and disciplinary relationships with the state, their rights and entitlements vis-à-vis the state are contingent, precarious, and even non-existent” (86). Bolstering the authority international organizations have to enforce human rights is warranted to ensure participating nations are not able to bend the rules to their favor.

The Migrant Workers’ Plight

Using the United Arab Emirates as a case study allows the argument for the protection of migrant workers to materialize. As stated before, the U.A.E.’s workforce is overwhelmingly filled with foreign workers. However, the U.A.E utilizes employer-favored labor laws that lack effective mechanisms to protect migrant workers. To argue more bluntly, the U.A.E. can be seen as actively pursuing policies that are aimed at stripping workers of any rights. Keane and McGeehan explain that “exploitation of these workers, ranging from non-payment of wages to physical abuse, is not simply commonplace or widespread, it is systematic” (82). Mideast Youth’s website,, tells us the story of a domestic worker sexual abuse case from 2011 that highlights the inequalities migrant workers might regularly face in the U.A.E. An Ethiopian housemaid was raped by her sponsor’s 15 years old son and held captive for nine months until she gave birth to the offspring. Because of the raping, she was found guilty of having sexual intercourse out of wedlock. The punishment saw her imprisoned for 3 months and possibly deported afterward. The sponsor’s son claimed the housemaid, which the courts believed, seduced him (“UAE: Maid Jailed for Being Raped, Another is Repeatedly Raped by a Policeman”). Using sexual conduct laws, as in sexual intercourse out of wedlock, the U.A.E. is almost ignoring the fact that a migrant worker’s human rights have been abused. Even more profound is the notion that domestic workers are punished for having their rights abused.

Labor law in the U.A.E. is not taken serious and can be seen as a way of bypassing the international regulatory system (Keane and McGeehan 85). As a participating member of the International Labor Organization, the U.A.E. should have ratified the convention that allows workers to organize, however, to this date they have not ratified convention 87 (Keane and McGeehan 82).  They become more conservative by banning any form of labor strikes or collective bargaining effectively stripping any power for the worker to protest for their rights. To add insult to injury, they exclude domestic, farming and grazing workers from labor rights. This seems to sweep under the rug the working conditions and human rights’ violations that domestic workers, who are predominately women, face. An argument could be made that the workers should just leave the country. The U.A.E. also fails in its protection of passports and contracts allowing the employer to confiscate their employee’s passports. These laws amount to conditions of bondage and slavery that are inflicted on migrant workers.

The U.A.E. can be seen as actively engaging in practices that further the bondage and slave-like conditions migrant workers face. Nepotism is the national policy in U.A.E. This amounts to a tribal-like composition of governing, which Keane and McGeehan explain: “a situation exists, therefore, where U.A.E. nationals, who comprise a mere five percent of the country’s workforce, own almost of the enterprises in the country and hold positions of absolute authority in the law and order system (110).”

This goes even further – police and labor officials, as well as almost all public sector employees, are nationals. Because of nepotism, those public workers are often a part of large families that control large portions of a workers life. For instance, when an employer confiscates a passport the people who are in charge of protecting employees are more than likely family members of the employer. The police officer one would go to if they were abused could potentially be a cousin or brother of the one who is abusing.

Debt bondage and contract laws are also another practice U.A.E. uses that furthers the plight of migrant workers. Contracts are not legally bound to be transcribed into the native language of a migrant worker (Keane and McGeehan 83). A migrant worker has no means to overlook the conditions of their employment. The odds are that they were not told that they would not be able to read the contract in advance. The employer is in a position to take advantage of the migrant worker and those conditions are legally mandated in the employment contract. Debt Bondage takes the deceptive form of charity for the migrant worker in U.A.E. When they arrive, the migrant worker often lacks the resources to sustain life until they are paid their working wages. The employer will tie a loan or line of credit to the migrant workers employment contract. While this seems like a positive move, it, in reality, creates debt bondage. The migrant worker is bound to work for the employer at least until the debt is paid back. As communicated, when that worker tries to remedy the situation those in charge are often already on the side of the employer.

Debt bondage might have started well before the migrant worker arrives in the U.A.E. The agent involved in securing the employment might attach fees to cover administrative cost. This does come across as valid as the agent provides a valuable go-between for the migrant worker. However, payment is often demanded upfront as soon as possible and not spread out in payments over the course of the employment contract. It is estimated that the first years of employment wages are used to shore up loans and agent fees levied on their employment contracts (Keane and McGeehan 111). An example in agent-based debt bondage is explained by Ray Jureidini when talking about how agents representing Ethiopian domestic workers will withhold thousands from the worker to ensure the employer that they do not run away (154-155). This raises the question Jureidini asked, “does the placement agency traffic the migrant domestic worker in order to exploit the labor of their first months in the receiving country” (155). Employment contract laws in the U.A.E. are very ambiguous, if non-existent in regards to agent fees and contract insurance. Furthermore, international organizations are not focused on regulating the validity of such fees and charges attached to employment contracts.

The practice of excluding certain trades from labor laws is not a new or uncommon practice and one that is utilized in the U.A.E. against the workers who tend to suffer the most. The U.A.E., along with many other Middle Eastern nations, excludes domestic workers from labor laws under the guise that they represent a personal relationship. This practice of exclusion leaves domestic workers with very little rights and protections. Where are they to go when they need to seek assistance regarding a dispute against their employer? If they go back to the agent, they are at risk of further suffering as the agent often sides with the employer, which most of their operational fees come from. Jureidini expands this problem by stating: “if the worker returns or is returned to the placement agency, she may be abused and threatened in order for her to return to the employer she was placed with, because the agent does not want to lose whatever investment he has made to bring her into the country for the fee he has charged the employer (154).”

An additional plight facing domestic workers not covered in labor laws is imprisonment. Many domestic workers have been locked in their place of employment when the family leaves the home. If they are let out, a family member often accompanies them. While they face prison-like working conditions, the domestic worker is often excluded from time off, either at the end of the day or as a traditional vacation leave (Jureidini 155-156). These conditions described would be, by many in Western cultures, considered slavery or like a prison. Without any protection or rights, a domestic worker has no route or alternative to escape slave-like conditions. Furthermore, being excluded from labor laws, the domestic worker is often subjected to extremely harsh exit conditions if they manage to leave early. Because there is also a lack of contract laws, the domestic worker might not realize all the described conditions are legal in the eyes of the U.A.E.

What could be considered the most unfortunate side effect of working conditions a migrant worker faces is that suicide is more often thought of as the only route to take in order to escape. Paul Ames in Hidden faces of the Gulf miracle describes instances of suicide or attempted suicide of domestic workers in 2011:

In some cases, the pressure on the women gets too much. Suicide attempts are disturbingly common. In February, a Bangladeshi maid aged just 17 plunged to her death from a 16th story apartment in Dubai’s plush Jumeirah Lake Towers area after warning her Indian employers that she would take her own life; three weeks later a 23-year old Indonesian was hospitalized after taking an overdose in the neighboring emirate of Ras Al Khaimah” (13).

The suicide of migrant workers in the Middle East caused Nepal to ban its women from domestic work in the Gulf in 1998 after a maid committed suicide in Kuwait. However, since that time Nepal has allowed women to work as domestic workers only if the conditions are safe (Ames 13). Many other nations have enacted restrictions aimed to create safer conditions abroad. Keane and McGeehan also alluded to the rise in suicide in a response from a Dubai psychiatrist: When these workers reach here they realize what they have gotten themselves into and see that they have lost everything, they react to it. They feel trapped as they now know they can’t go back either. There’s no escape. They know that they are in a bonded labor type of situation and are reacting to what they think is the biggest mistake in their life, an irreparable loss. It is the reaction to this loss, which can lead to suicidal contemplation (qtd. in pg. 111).

Suicide because of work is a challenging thought to many in Western cultures who are given the luxury of employment at will in most scenarios, as well as robust workers’ rights. The fact remains, the U.A.E. is contributing to an unnecessary loss of life by not protecting migrant workers. They are aware of their situation. They know that their employer and the country as a whole are set up to benefit nationals, to the point that bondage and slavery are sought after. They are aware that their employer controls their passports, housing, medical and basic wellbeing. If they do decide to leave, their agents will only continue the abuse and they face the authorities who consider them criminals and illegal immigrants.


The situation facing migrant workers in the Middle East, specifically the U.A.E., is complex and not likely to change overnight. The U.A.E. is governed by a different set of principles that look more to family or tribal forms of authority. Human rights violations aside, changing the culture of an entire nation is an almost impossible feat, and definitely impossible to do quickly. Furthermore, the question of those in charge wanting to maintain the status quo because of the benefits in development remains to be seen. The U.A.E. is a sovereign nation and as discussed above, international organizations lack the authority to force the nation to abide by international conventions. Only when the U.A.E. changes its laws to be more will noticeable changes occur.

Governance aimed at protecting migrant workers from labor trafficking and slave-like working conditions lacks effectiveness, in the Middle East and elsewhere. This ineffectiveness is systemic and manifests in labor trafficking and migrant workers’ rights. International law is bypassed, ignored outright or not taken seriously. Many nations look to the criminal organization and illegal immigrants to solve the trafficking problem and fail to see that either willingly being smuggled or unwillingly being trafficked constitutes a violation of human rights. Furthermore, when a nation only focuses on the criminal aspect of labor trafficking, the violation of human rights tend to be forgotten. When those being trafficked are apprehended they might even face further violations in the processing and deportation process. Globalization continues to strain the labor demand in many nations and creates uneven balances. It is within these inequalities that mistreatment and violations occur. Once the paradigm shifts from development to sustainability, we might be able to see concrete changes in the authority of enforcement of laws in place that will assure migrant workers protection while traveling and while working in their host nations. Only when nations start to take serious concern over the welfare of migrant workers and those being trafficked will change occur. To be simple, nobody should ever contemplate suicide because of work and nobody should ever be subjected to slave-like conditions. Work and employment should be mechanisms that uplift our life does not shackle it down.

Works Cited

Ames, Paul. “Hidden faces of the Gulf miracle.” Union View. 21. (2011): 1-24. Print.

Fernandez, Bina. “Exploring the Relevance of Fraser’s Ethical-Political Framework of Justice to the Analysis of Inequalities Faces by Migrant Workers.”International Journal of Social Quality. 1.2 (2011): 85-101. Print.

Jureidini, Ray. “Trafficking and Contract Migrant Workers in the Middle East.” International Migration. 48.4 (2010): 142-163. Print.

Keane, David, and Nicholas McGeehan. “Enforcing Migrant Workers’ Rights in the

United Arab Emirates.” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights. 15. (2008): 81-115. Print.

Richards, Kathy. “The Trafficking of Migrant Workers: What are the Links Between Labour Trafficking and Corruption.” International Migration. 42.5 (2004): 147-168. Print.

“UAE: Maid Jailed for Being Raped, Another is Repeatedly Raped by a Policeman.”

Migrant Mideast Youth, 30 Apr 2011. Web. 1 Dec 2013. <>.

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