To understand the massive growth in Dubai, the construction and labor industries must be taken
into account. Dubai’s enormous skyscrapers and human-engineered islands are built by the
efforts of hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers, and it is only through this influx that the
city’s expansion is possible. According to the Government of Dubai Statistics Center, a
staggering 96% of its employed population is made up of immigrant workers; Dubai is
unquestionably dependent on this population.
Migrant workers are recruited from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia,
Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Thailand, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Philippines. In the UAE,
migrant workers that are employed in the private sector are sponsored by UAE citizens under
employment contracts for one to three years. These contracts are subject to renewal. If not
renewed, once a migrant worker’s work permit expires that worker (and their family) must leave
However, for many migrant workers, the situation is not this simple.
Workers are hired from local recruitment agencies in their home countries working on behalf of
UAE based businesses. Generally, workers are charged a fee by their prospective employer
(normally over $1000 U.S.) to procure their visa and plane ticket to the UAE.
The money often has to be borrowed or family land sold under the impression that within 18 months the debt can be repaid.
Even though this is a customary practice among agencies, these kinds of recruitment
charges are expressly forbidden under UAE law.
When workers arrive in Dubai, they are systematically subjected to exploitation by their
employers. Upon arrival, passports are confiscated in an attempt to prevent employees from
leaving. The workers cannot leave the country without a passport and thus are barred from
returning home. This is illegal but is still a widespread practice among companies in the city.
Additionally, migrant workers are denied their wages for at least the first few months, in an
attempt by the employer to prevent their employees from leaving. Large amounts of employers
do not pay their workers on a regular basis, creating a huge backlog of debt for the migrant
workers. Additionally, in many cases, workers are also abandoned by their employers. Some
employers hold back paying wages to their workers for many months and then flee the country,
leaving employees with virtually no options to survive or leave their situation. When wages are paid, they are generally much less than those promised originally, which creates even more
problems between workers and collection agencies in their home countries.
Laborers are forced to work long hours in the dangerous desert heat on construction projects and
are not given sufficient breaks as required by law. Health and safety violations are rampant on
construction projects, and the government does not enforce these regulations thoroughly.
Workers describe a large number of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but
government records do not reflect this. Human Rights Watch described a “cover-up” of the true
numbers of injuries and fatalities of migrant workers in Dubai; out of nearly six thousand
construction companies in Dubai, only six reported any kind of injuries to the Ministry of Labor.
In 2005, the government of Dubai reported only 39 deaths by workers of all nationalities in the
entire country. The Indian consulate alone recorded 971 death cases in 2005, of which 61 were
registered accidents. 14 These numbers indicate discrepancies in the health and safety reports of
the workers, and at the very least gross oversight by the Dubai authorities.
After long days of hard labor working in life-threatening heat, migrants are exploited even
further. Workers live in company-run shanty towns and face a life of squalor. The largest is a
town called Sonapur, with a population of over 300,000 foreign workers. “Sonapur,” ironically,
means “City of Gold” in Hindi.15
In Sonapur and camps like it, conditions are appalling. Sewage systems are broken and
deplorable, basic utilities are inadequate and the heat is unbearable for many. Water provided is
not desalinated properly, and laborers describe sickness caused by drinking it. Workers also
face dehydration and heatstroke, among other ailments. Camps are extremely overcrowded; one
article details a camp of 7,500 laborers sharing 1,248 rooms with poor ventilation, with sewage
leaking all over the worker’s quarters.16 For the vast majority of migrants these slums are their
only option for housing, and neither the 14-hour workdays nor the miserable quarters they return
to offer any reprieve.
Workers have very few options to leave these situations. Unionizing is forbidden, and most
workers have no recourse other than the Labor Ministry. 18 Workers have gone on several strikes,
but horrible conditions still persist. As a result, a mentality of desperation and hopelessness
arises in many workers, and this translates into suicides for a substantial number of a large
number of migrant workers.
Being that the Indian consulate in Dubai is one of the only relatively reliable sources of
information about migrant deaths, most figures of suicides come from that embassy. In 2005
alone 84 Indian nationals committed suicide in Dubai, and this is not even taking into account
any of the other nationalities that work in Dubai. Even in the past few years, Dubai has not been
able to eliminate these suicides; for example, in 2011 a worker jumped to his death off of the
tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, after his employer denied granting him leave to go
home.20 As we have seen with deaths in construction sites, companies and the government do not
report accurate numbers on worker deaths and exact numbers and suicide are imprecise. Records
provided by the government on worker deaths are suspiciously incomplete and do not match up
with estimates provided by state embassies. Discrepancies exist between the tally taken by
embassies and the numbers officially reported by the government.
In Dubai slavery does not stop at construction labor exploitation. Another bastion of human
rights violations in the city are the servitude and abuse of thousands of migrant domestic worker
Similarly to construction laborers, domestic workers are hired by recruitment agencies in their
home countries, primarily from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. Many women
volunteer for domestic work as nannies or maids for the Emirati elite, looking for work and
opportunities working in a foreign country. They too incur debts paying the recruitment agencies
excessive fees to finance their visas and travel fees.22 Domestic workers are recruited through a
legal sponsorship that links the employment and the residency of a domestic worker to a specific
employer, similar to that of a migrant laborer. This sponsorship requires all unskilled laborers to
have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal
status. Domestic workers enter these bonding contracts with employers they have not yet
interacted with, leaving them in a position vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. 23
When they arrive in Dubai, the worker’s passports are confiscated, and from then on their
employers have extensive control over them.24 Domestic workers are usually hired to work in
their master’s house doing housework and often live in their home as well. As such, these
women face a unique problem; their employers have control over them every waking hour of the
day. Domestic workers are often denied freedom of movement and are either locked inside or
forbidden to leave the home without permission. They are forced to work excessive hours with
little or no pay and have no way to escape. Once in control of a situation like this, their employers can potentially force them to do work day or night with threats; ranging from physical
violence to starvation to withheld pay.
Domestic workers are routinely abused by their employers. From beatings to rape, women face
violence in conditions in which they are prisoners twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Grisly stories include a woman who was viciously stabbed and disfigured by her employer and a
maid whose employer beat her head against the wall and battered her with broomsticks after
starving her for years.
Most of the time domestic workers have no way out of their situation. Even if a maid or nanny
manages to escape from their employer’s home, most have no knowledge of Arabic and cannot
function in society. Since the employers hold the migrant’s passport, changing jobs is a nearly
impossible task, and they cannot leave the country without it. Some seek help in their home
country’s embassy, but most are apathetic and cannot do much without the worker’s passport,
which is still in the hands of their employer. If a maid reports her abuse to the police or
government after running away, she is charged with the crime of running away from her
employer and breaching the contract. When an Ethiopian maid attempted suicide in the street to
escape her hopeless situation, she was found by the police and arrested for attempted suicide;
illegal in Dubai. Systematically, when women act in response to their abuse they are charged
by the government with crimes themselves; effectively women in Dubai face an environment in
which they are punished for speaking out in abusive situations.
Domestic spheres are not the only places where migrant women are exploited and abused. Dubai
is one of the biggest tourist destinations on Earth, and as such many arrive on vacation and in
search of pleasure. Human trafficking organizations make that pleasure accessible to thousands
through the vast prostitution network in the city.
Sex slavery presents itself through two main venues; the complex sex trafficking system which
brings women from many parts of the world to work as sex slaves in Dubai, and the exploitation
of young women out of work in the city by pimps. There are over 30,000 foreign prostitutes in
the city, and a large number of these women are trafficked slaves or exploited servants. Many women are trafficked to Dubai and forced to work against their will. Females are trafficked from
Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Far East, East Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco
and subjected to forced prostitution, and UAE does not fully comply with the minimum
standards for the elimination of trafficking, according to the United States State Department. Many
women sign contracts to become domestic workers or work in Dubai businesses, only to have
employers confiscate their passports and force them to work as prostitutes.32 These women, like
hundreds of thousands all around the world, are trafficked into a life of sexual slavery.
Stringent laws exist against any kind of public sexual behaviour in Dubai, and tourists are
imprisoned for acts as small as kissing in a restaurant or sending lewd text messages.33
Prostitution is strictly illegal under United Arab Emirates’ and Islamic law, but is widely
accepted within the city. Implementation of anti-trafficking or anti-prostitution regulations is
severely lacking, and authorities rarely enforce these laws. As a result, huge numbers of foreign
men procure illegal sex services every day.
Part of what allows prostitution to flourish in Dubai is its residence visa system. Every Emirati
citizen is entitled to a certain number of residence visas with which to hire foreign workers. Most
Emiratis don’t use all of their available visas, and sell the extras to middlemen who trade them
on to women who want to work in the city. Thousands of women even sign up willingly as
prostitutes to escape destitution in their home countries. However, many of these women are then
exploited and forced to work as sex slaves. Conditions for rape, physical abuse and financial
exploitation are also very prevalent in these women’s situations.
As is the case with domestic servants, women in abusive situations rarely find help from their
home embassies. The local government and police are ineffectual, and Dubai remains a
dangerous place to even report rape. After reporting rape, some women have been arrested for
“illegal sex acts,” and women who have been sexually assaulted face the possibility of being
punished themselves.36 In particular, sexual slaves have the fewest options of escaping their