The world is all too familiar with craze around the spectacular development in UAE, specifically in Dubai. People talk about "walking on the streets barefeet", "streets being made of gold", and what not. A lot of it is not just myth. The rulers of UAE have been pushing for innovative, record-breaking, near-perfection designs in everything the contractors build. The country has extremely high levels of fine on littering. People living in high-rise buildings aren't allowed to "hang their clothes outside to dry" because it spoils the view of the city.
Behind all this glamour is the sad reality of the down-trodden, overworked, badly paid labour class. Cheap labour that UAE gets from countries like Phillipines, India, Pakistan, and other places.
In Al Ain, it's all too common to notice every Arab family has a maid accompanying them- either holding the groceries, carrying a child or pushing the shopping cart. Sometimes, if the Arab man goes shopping alone, the maid accompanies him too. I see this as modern day slavery, which human rights commissions across the Middle East have been condemning.
And here is where the awfully structured Kafala System come in.
What is the Kafala System?
Basically, the sponsorship system means that expatriate workers can only enter, work, and leave certain countries with the assistance or explicit permission of their sponsor or employer, who is a local in the country. This is basis upon which visas are issued.
Because of the domain in which they work - households – domestic workers also do not fall under any other national laws, and are essentially not legally classified as workers. Because their work is basically legally unrecognised and they are unrecognised as workers, they are explicitly unable to exercise the rights and freedoms afforded to workers.
Also because of their 'unrecognised' status, and even their unrecognised work, it is difficult to scrutinise and regulate their working and living conditions.
Human Rights Violation
"... they wake up to help their employer make suhoor (pre dawn meal) then the day begins with the children going to school in the morning, in the afternoon they prepare the futoor with their employer, and they stay up at night till the family goes to sleep – this includes all other duties of caring for the house and children – and the next day it begins again. They work for undefined hours, they are not able to practice their own religion freely, they are not given days off, there are cases of non-payment of salaries.They have controlled and limited freedom of movement - they are not free to move outside the sponsor's home and they are not free to receive visitors or have partners. Their passports are withheld. They have problems with living conditions, being fed, medical provisions - and these are the day to day sufferings that we do not hear about. And then comes the psychological, verbal, physical and sexual abuse which we have received cases of in Bahrain and seen minimal coverage of in the regional media in these cases the abusers have been the employers or sponsors but also their children or relatives"
In Bahrain the average number of hours worked per week was 108, in Kuwait 101, in the UAE 105. These women had an average of 1 day off per month. They all spoke of control on their freedom of movement. Every single one interviewed reported that their passport was held by their employer. None of them were given renumeration for working overtime. In each country, more than 40% of the women interviewed reported physical, verbal or sexual abuse.
For two years now, Sri Lankan authorities have been trying to gain a pardon from the Saudi family who claim that their 17 year old maid a Sri Lankan girl, Rizana (sentenced to beheading in public), killed their 4 yr old infact. Fools. She obviously wasn't trained in childcare, and also she claims she didn't choke the baby. But I can't even call them fools because, most of these Arab families don't know any better. They don't know about human rights, about equal treatment, fairness, and most importantly, acquiring skilled labour.
Those are the women...
The men have an equally sad story. In a way, I admire these men- they work awfully long hours in the sun- more than 40 degree temperature on most days, hitting past 50- they sleep in cars, trunks, under the trees, trucks, anywhere. They do as they're told. All so that they can earn a few dirhams and send it to their families back home, whom they see once every few years.
- Imagine selling newspapers at intersections, and moving from place to place carrying a heavy load of papers on your bike for 8 hours a day, and not having enough cold water to keep you hydrated?
- Or, finding cars to sleep the night where you have to pay 5dhs for it?
- Or, collecting cans, pieces of metals, glass to sell for a few dirhams?
No one bothers educating these men- Setting up English/Arabic language conversational programs for them, health insurance, hygienic accommodations, and everything else. As was mentioned on the UAE community blog, if labour wasn't dirt cheap, how would Dubai be where it is today?Or, as a Vice President of an investment bank in Dubai was telling me a few months back, "Shouldn't the money be going to these people who're working day in and out? But no, the money goes to the rich companies. What are the Islamic banks doing?"
One of the emails Al Jazeera received on this issue read: "It's about time the country sets high standards by fair treatment of people, than by building scyscrapers".
But, perhaps, the saddest part of this whole ordeal is that... people, who watch everything and know everything turn a blind eye to it, since of course, they are benefitting from the fruits of these labours indirectly. Are we superior, just because we are educated? We've become so used to comfort and luxury and too desensitised to the point that we've just...stopped noticing.