Public Affairs Networking
The anti-slavery game, UAE Style

In the 1920s, the colonial powers expressed their unanimous support for a treaty to abolish slavery, while passing a separate treaty that allowed them to continue to use what they called “forced labor” in their African colonies. Rebranding slavery proved very profitable for the European powers and very costly for their colonial subjects. Historians have referred to this type of humanitarian posturing as the “anti-slavery game,” writes Nicholas McGeehan.

The United Arab Emirates appears to have its own version of the “anti-slavery game.”  Reading a new report on the country’s treatment of domestic workers, one is struck not just by the terrible abuses endured by the young women who ventured to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in search of a better life, but the UAE’s hypocrisy given its very public support for global anti-trafficking initiatives.  The historical parallels are telling.


The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with 99 female domestic workers. The title, “I Already Bought You,” is a direct quote from an employer to one of the domestic workers, Marelie, when she asked to leave the person’s employment. The connotations of ownership indicate that Human Rights Watch has documented the type of abuses that the international community agreed to abolish nearly a century ago. The often harrowing details describe workers kept under almost complete control, beaten, dehumanized and degraded by employers to whom the UAE system ties them.


Many of the women said their employers had treated them no better than animals.  Farah S., an Indonesian worker, was forced to work long hours, with no rest and no day off. She said her employer never addressed her by her name, only as “worker.” She said:  “They thought of me as dirty. They didn’t think of me as human. I know because they never talked to me like I was a person.”


The mutually reinforcing mechanisms that underpin and perpetuate this system of abuse include the UAE’s kafalasystem, the visa-sponsorship system that ties domestic workers to their employers and does not allow them to transfer employers before the end of their contract without the employer’s consent. Deceptive recruitment practices, systematic passport confiscation, and the barriers workers face to getting redress or justice only add to the problem. Domestic workers are not even covered by UAE labor law.


The fight to end what is often called “modern-day slavery” tends to be fought under the banner of human trafficking. So there is considerable irony in the fact that while the UAE’s actions and omissions facilitate the trafficking and forced labor of domestic workers, its PR machine very successfully promotes the UAE as an active partner in the contemporary abolitionist movement.


The UAE has contributed significant sums to the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even singled the UAE out for special praise at the release of the U.S. State Department’s annual trafficking in persons report in June 2011.


How does the UAE pull off this trick? It simply focuses on trafficking for sexual exploitation and ignores trafficking for labour exploitation. The 2013-14 report from the UAE’s National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking states: “the UAE—with expatriates making up about 85 per cent of its population—believes that labor issues should not be linked to human trafficking, and should be treated separately.”


The UAE’s  support for anti-human trafficking efforts is laudable but its attempts to occupy the moral high ground on that issue while not taking action on labour abuses at home recalls previous hypocrisy in the efforts  to end slavery in the 20th century – “a smokescreen to deflect public criticism and avoid action,” to quote the historian Suzanne Miers.


Women like Farah and Marelie need the UAE to ditch its posturing and take real steps to guarantee their protection. The UAE needs to ratify the 2011 domestic workers convention and implement its very sensible provisions. It needs to  ratify the 2014 protocol to the ILO forced labor convention of 1930 (a much-needed update). And it needs to give domestic workers the right to change employers before the end of their contracts without their employer’s consent, ensure that domestic workers have the same legal protection for their labour rights as other migrant workers–and effectively enforce that protection.


States that are serious about ridding the world of this insidious form of human exploitation should insist that the UAE puts its house in order if it is to be taken seriously as an ally in a battle that is far from won.


Nicholas McGeehan is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.


  1. this is so pathetic….i had asked for policies against slavery…..what rubbish was this??

    Comment by chirayu on July 31, 2015 at 11:28 am
Submit a comment

Policy and networking for the digital age
Policy Review TV Neil Stewart Associates
© Policy Review | Policy and networking for the digital age 2024 | Log-in | Proudly powered by WordPress
Policy Review EU is part of the NSA & Policy Review Publishing Network