Discrimination against foreigners and expatriates living in the UAE versus Emirati citizens

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The DCT research team just released a report on the discrimination against foreigners and expats in the United Arab Emirates (hereinafter: UA). Even though the UAE has ratified many international human rights instruments, the country has been known to be a despotic police state that routinely breaches human rights and oppresses its people. Many political opponents and activist, such as Human Rights Defenders, who are trying to denounce these kinds of violations, have been prosecuted and arbitrarily detained in the past based on false and manipulated legal bases (cfr. legal opportunism).

The UAE’s economy is heavily reliant on migrant workers, mostly low-wage and semi-skilled workers from Africa, Asia or other parts of the Middle East, who are accounting for roughly 90% of the country’s population. Labour migration in the UAE is regulated by the so-called Kafala system, where the foreign workers need a ‘sponsor’, usually their employer, in order to come to the country. This sponsorship enables full dependence of the workers on their employer which reduces their social and political power and the protection of their rights massively. As a result, it is incredibly hard for the migrant workers to leave the country or change jobs without permission or make demands for better labour conditions and wages, which automatically leads to their exploitation. In 2020, like most of the Arab countries, the UAE passed some legal reforms to ease the contractual restrictions of the Kafala system by defining minimum labour standards such as paid holidays, limitation of working hours and prohibition of child labour. Despite these legal efforts, some significant gaps in their implementation and a lack of enforcement remain. Sequentially, the system continues to give employers a high degree of control over almost every aspect of the workers’ lives, and thereby increasing their vulnerability to trafficking, forced labour and other exploitation. 

Due to the need of foreign workers to sustain the UAE’s growth, immigrants from all over the world have flocked to the country in large numbers. However, despite the Emirati being outnumbered by non-nationals, a generally accepted hierarchy is established where Emirati still hold the social power followed by western professionals, professional workers from Arab countries, with unskilled workers from non-Arab countries at the bottom. This social hierarchy and the Kafala system together with the applicable exclusionary citizenship law for foreigners causes racialization. As the anti-discrimination law in the UAE excludes discrimination based on gender, female foreign workers are even more vulnerable. They do not get fair benefits and are often being discriminated concerning wage equality and in competitions for obtaining promotions, not only for being a non-national but also for being a woman. (cfr. intersectionality).

As the non-nationals are often threatened by the employer with fabricated criminal charges or the loss of their jobs, they are afraid to file a complaint. Because of that, discriminative practices and other violations of the worker’s rights are very often not being brought to light.

The findings of the research concern the DCT as the UAE is so reliant on foreign workers to keep up with the development boom and therefore fulfils an important international role. The state’s regulations and proper implementation and enforcement systems to protect the migrant workers’ rights need to be adapted in order to comply with the universal human rights principles. They should modify their labour system by easing the contract restrictions or even fully abolishing the Kafala system. Their position as a major host country for migrant workers requires a national strategy to reduce the existing racial hierarchy and discrimination towards these people.

Florence Van den Bergh

Florence Van den Bergh

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