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Dubai Authorities Skew Perceptions of Absconded Workers

On November 14, 2012

In the UAE and other GCC states, absconded domestic workers are considered illegal workers, and are deported if discovered. Employers who hire absconded workers also face considerable fines. It is important that the state discourage employers from illegally recruiting workers, as undocumented domestic workers are excluded from the regulations that (intend to) ensure minimum standards of employment and a means to redress contraventions of labor rights. However, in a recent Emirates 24/7 interview Dubai authorities constrain resolution of absconsion by presenting a dangerously skewed analysis of the issue.

The judge and Criminal Investigations Department Deputy Director interviewed emphasize the risks sponsors face - an essential element to address If employers are to be convinced against hiring absconded workers. However, the two men repeatedly and unfairly malign absconded workers, in effect stoking baseless fears and aggravating generally negative attitudes of domestic workers. For example, Judge Ali Humaid bin Khatam claims that most workers abscond in order to earn more money:

An increasing number of housemaids are found escaping their sponsors in a bid to raise their income. In most cases, absconded maids work on an hourly-basis and earn much more than they ever did when they worked for a sponsor for a fixed and limited salary.

Both components of this allegation are untrue. Firstly, the majority of domestic workers abscond to escape abusive employers. The sponsorship system often renders it impossible for migrants to otherwise escape such conditions. Massive documentation of this phenomenon is evident in the form of court cases and interviews with these workers, many of whom seek refuge with their respective consulates and plead to be repatriated. Domestic workers may also abscond in (an often futile attempt) to obtain a fair salary;an October Emirates 24/7 article revealed that many Filipina maids still do not receive the mandated minimum wage. Responses from governing officials illustrate that minimum wage enforcement rests with recruitment agencies rather than governing entities, a serious paucity in regulation that indicates underpayment is a prevailing issue for many of the UAE's domestic workers.

Lastly, absconded workers rarely enjoy the lucrative careers suggested. They no longer benefit from even the prospect of labor legislations’ protections, and are therefore even more dependent upon the benevolence of their employers than their documented counterparts. These workers are vulnerable to exploitation, including severe underpayment and overburdened work loads, primarily because employers can threaten to report them to authorities.

Relatedly, the interviews understate the abusive conditions domestic workers endure and overstate the inconveniences sponsors face. Judge Humaid bin Khatam states,

When maids escape, they cause enormous financial loss to the sponsor as the maid is entirely a sponsor’s responsibility once she joins her employer.

In one sentence, officals trivialize the conditions endured by domestic workers and simultaneously deflect accountability for any (potential) abuse. Absconded workers are furthermore vilified and depicted as threats to society at large:

In fact, he warns people against violating the law and hiring absconding maids. Colonel Jallaf believes that such maids have negative influence on health and safety of the family and the community.

The article’s author cites only decontextualized crime statistics to support this statement; domestic worker crime rates are solitary referenced without mention of those committed by employers. Nor are the motivations behind domestic workers crimes discussed, despite a statement by the Dubai police last year which linked employer mistreatment to migrant worker crime.

The article also fuels hackneyed fears of “social demoralization” by problematizing illicit relationships periodically pursued by workers. However, such relationships are only ‘illicit’ because workers are not allowed to enjoy personal lives in the same capacity as their employers. often claim that workers must adapt to “Gulf culture,” but the UAE’s abundance of clubs and relatedly ‘unchaste’ locales demonstrate that this culture’applies only to the foreign working class, not to white collar expatriates or Dubai’s own local populace.

The interview does include some important reminders for employers - in particular, that a housemaid cannot work for a sponsor’s friend, a frequent phenomenon which overburdens workers and contravenes employment contracts. Yet, the article’s underlying intent suffers from a critical flaw - it seeks to prevent citizens from hiring illegal workers and to encourage sponsors to report their absconded workers - but not prevent, or even address, the actual causes of absconsion itself; neither interviewees even mention the legal consequences a sponsor will face if they are discovered to have abused their absconded workers.

Unfortunately, as the interview was conducted with rather high-level officials, it seems to reflect administrative perspectives on absconsion. Authorities must re-evaluate such disproportionately negative attitude against absconding workers and endeavor to address these issues fairly and comprehensively.