New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi is a prominent structure, with palm trees and state-of-the-art facilities, reflecting the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) desire to present itself as a pioneer in education. Yet it is also a damning symbol of the UAE’s sheer inequality, modern slavery, and workers abuse that have propelled the country’s economic advancements and are often ignored. 

Since construction of the university campus began in 2009, migrants from Africa and south Asia were lured into promising jobs with the construction project, yet they ended up in inhumane working conditions. A New York Times investigation revealed the traumatic experience for these migrant workers, including being housed in isolated, squalid encampments, enduring 11-hour workdays, having restricted cell-phone access, and being paid poverty wages, or facing even wage theft, worsened by unaffordable living costs and recruitment-fee debt.

The contracts of about one-third of the workers violate New York University’s labor laws.

Many of these workers were threatened with or even received severe financial penalties for trying to quit their jobs. The contracts of about one-third of the workers violate New York University’s labor laws. According to a report from the Coalition for Fair Labor, NYU has not paid back unpaid wages, nor has it put in place stronger restrictions on forced labor. 

NYU spokesperson Kate Chandler dismissed these accusations as “incorrect and inflammatory.” Yet due to the Emirati authorities’ harsh punishment for criticism or even highlighting its abuses, people there are not talking. 

Outsiders sometimes view the UAE as an oasis of skyscrapers, fancy shopping malls, luxury tourist accommodations, and a hub for economic opportunity. But the UAE has depended heavily on external labor to develop its metropolises. The UAE relies on an expatriate population of around 90% (as a percentage of the total population). Those from wealthier countries often receive more lucrative positions and salaries, while the more demeaning jobs are done by those from underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia.

Workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, among other countries, make costly efforts to work in the UAE, often paying thousands of dollars just to reach the country. Yet many immediately end up in poorly equipped labor camps and are then subjugated to their employers’ wishes. Exclusive adverts for low-paying jobs like supermarket work, children and elderly care, or other janitorial and domestic work are often restricted to those from certain nationalities, showing that ethnic exploitation is permitted for employers.   

Speaking to Inside Arabia, Rothna Begum, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that employment contracts are often vague and contain false information about the terms of employment for the employees. This facilitates workers being lured into jobs under false pretenses, and once they are subject to a contract, they cannot leave, or else they face prosecution or deportation. 

Underpinning this tolerance for labor trafficking is the repressive “kafala” (or sponsorship) system, which legally binds the employee to his or her employer.

Underpinning this tolerance for labor trafficking is the repressive “kafala” (or sponsorship) system, which legally binds the employee to his or her employer. Employers must sponsor foreign workers for purposes of obtaining a visa. This frequently involves passport confiscation, restrictions on an employee’s ability to leave his or her employer, and sometimes wage withholdinggiving the employers absolute control over their workers. This sponsorship system has resulted in forced labor in the Emirates, and arguably is a modern form of slavery.

Employers have often used this binding contract to force workers into abusive actions, including ones that breach their rights or contracts. If workers reject illegal demands made of them, the employer can accuse them of vague crimes or breach of contract. Leaving the employer could result in either deportation, fines of up to Dh100,000 (USD 27,225) or a six-month prison sentence.

Many victims therefore stay with their employers, either because of fear of the consequences of leaving, or out of desperation to provide an income to their families back home.

Begum said that the UAE’s attempts to counter trafficking have not targeted labor trafficking, which has allowed such malign contracts to flourish. Instead, the authorities have been more focused on sex trafficking. 

Although prostitution is forbidden in the UAE, with the Sharia Courts being able to impose flogging as punishment, forced prostitution has still become a widespread issue in the Emirates, also largely owing to Kafala. Vulnerable young women are lured into the UAE with offers of respectable jobs, then are forced into sexually exploitative work. 

In Dubai alone, a significant tourism center, it is estimated that there are several tens of thousands of prostitutes. 

Countless brothels are to be found across the UAE, filled with young women previously given such false promises. In Dubai alone, a significant tourism center, it is estimated that there are several tens of thousands of prostitutes. 

If Emirati authorities crack down on the brothels, the women victims of the trafficking are often the ones who are prosecuted, rather than the traffickers, said Begum. She described one woman who moved to the UAE as a domestic worker, and was told that if she wanted to stay there, she had to do sex work. The woman faced a serious dilemma: stay in the abusive working environment or end up on the street and face potential punishment from the government for becoming “undocumented.” 

“Had she been caught; she would have been arrested or deported. Countless women face similar circumstances. Many do not have access to their countries’ embassies or are not taken seriously by them. And since many seek to leave the country, or do not stay for a long period of time, their cases are not addressed, meaning that exploitative employers have freedom to abuse female migrant workers like this,” said Begum.

Care centers have been opened by the UAE’s National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, but only a small number of sex trafficking victims have been taken in. Many women obviously avoid them due to the risks of prosecution.

Amid growing knowledge of abuses of foreign workers, Emirati authorities claim they are taking the epidemic seriously. In May, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash announced that 77 human traffickers had been arrested in 2018.

“The UAE is fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and to continue to combat the crime of human trafficking,” said Gargash — who is also chairman of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, which was set up to crack down on this issue. 

The system still largely persists, and there have not been significant improvements to labor trafficking.

The UAE had also taken some apparent steps to lessen the impact of Kafala, passing Federal Law No.10 of 2017 to reduce working hours and provide paid holidays, along with establishing the workers’ right to retain personal documents like passports. Yet enforcement has not been stringent, and the system still largely persists, meaning that there have not been significant improvements to labor trafficking.

While there have been clear efforts to target the surface level symptoms of human trafficking, Begum said that ultimately Emirati authorities are not focusing on its causes, and that ending the Kafala system is an essential step. 

“Claiming that the UAE is combatting human trafficking is also more of an attempt to convey a positive image of the UAE to the worldthat it is becoming more progressive,” she added. 

Begum also suggested that legalizing prostitution in the UAE is an essential measure to ensure that victims of sex trafficking can seek legal action for abuses against them while not facing consequences themselves for the sexploitation that has been forced upon them.