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UAE Dangerously Trivializes ILO's Trafficking Report

On April 19, 2013

Concerning comments from the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking undermine efforts to combat forced labor issues in the region; members of the Committee, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and undersecretary of FNC Affairs, attempted to discredit the recent report in statements to the National and Gulf News using a number of problematic arguments:

1. “The report relied on indicators rather than statistics.”

“...of the 359 workers interviewed for the report, 266 were considered as possible trafficking cases. In that case... 80 per cent of the labour market in the UAE may have been trafficked – which was obviously not the case. “

The report clearly specified that its findings could not be statistically extrapolated to the region. However, both the content and volume of the anecdotes indicate that systemic issues within the GCC, including the sponsorship and lax regulation, entrench pervasive forced labour situations. The report also urged sending and receiving governments to expand efforts to provide quantitative data to facilitate further analysis of trafficking in the region.

2. “The report relied only on 65 key witnesses and 61 migrant workers”

The report examined the entire scope of the trafficking phenomenon, which entailed interviews with all relevant of stakeholders including: migrants, government officials, NGOs, and recruitment agents. The diversity of stakeholders spanning the pre-departure, departure, and arrival phases is essential to a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of trafficking migrants for forced labor and prostitution. The supposedly small number of cases reviewed in the report cannot be dismissed as mere “instances” of trafficking given a) the ILO’s analysis of the structural forces that induce and perpetuate such situations and b) the sheer volume and recurrence of similar reports.

3. “Everyone at work has problems.”

This flippant assertion trivializes the plight of migrant workers and other victims of trafficking, falsely drawing a comparison between the mundane struggles of 'white-collar' workers to those faced by socially and legally marginalized individuals. The issues discussed in the report - nonpayment, physical sexual, or psychological abuse, underpayment, and dangerous or exacting working conditions - are not endured equally across demographics in the UAE nor the wider GCC. This claim attempts to deflect government complicity in such conditions and furthermore derogates violations of international human rights conventions, including including those espoused in the Arab Human Rights Charter.

The following assertions further attempted to dispel the report’s criticisms:

1. "There were safeguards for workers who felt they had been exploited, channels for them to voice grievances, and that the law looked after any victims of the system."

The report indicated that there was a) a paucity in such safeguards b) a lack of enforcement, regulation, or monitoring of such safeguards and c) other accessibility issues to such safeguards; many of these obstructions are intrinsic to the sponsorship system as the system renders leaving or complaining about an employer extremely precarious to a migrant’s residency. The framework of sponsorship operates on an unequal relationship between employers and migrants, inherently prioritizing the rights of the former. Furthermore, Migrant Rights receives numerous reports of migrants unable to obtain aid from either GCC governments or their own representatives in remedying exploitative situations.

The report urged GCC nations to amplify regulation of scrupulous recruitment agencies, to implement monitoring schemes of households to ensure the protection of domestic workers, and to reform the sponsorship by empowering the role of labour ministries a more central role in the migration system.

2.“A number of intrinsic rights to workers, and he stressed that holding on to passports was illegal."

This statement merely reinforces that the sponsorship system and the concurrent lack of effective regulation undermines any existing labor protections for migrant workers. That passport confiscation continues - even in major companies such as the Sharjah Free Zone - furthermore demonstrates the absence of substantive enforcement mechanisms necessary to render existing protections effective.

3. "Each country has a right to adopt whatever system it deems suitable,”

With the release of the Committee’s 2012-2013 report, officials relayed commitments to “maintain a constructive dialogue with all the members of the international community to eliminate human trafficking.” However, “constructive dialogue” is circumscribed when such international efforts are repeatedly dismissed as challenges to sovereignty.

4. “If the matter reached exploitation, no doubt the human-trafficking law would protect and punish accordingly,” he said.

Many of the reforms suggested in the report are intended to prevent exploitation. Furthermore, the report documented systematic obstructions to legal resolutions, including issues of accessibility to legal services and psychological impediments to reporting employers; or example, some sponsors threaten workers that complain or escape with imprisonment and deportation - a reality that prevents many migrants from leaving and reporting exploitative conditions. In one case, a domestic worker who escaped abusive working conditions was imprisoned in an immigration holding prison and deported after sponsor’s claimed she absconded.

5. “These people [who are sexually exploited] are afraid, they feel if they complain they will face prison. This is not true,” he said. “The victim is a victim, not a criminal. The law … is very clear, they are a victim. They go to the shelter, not to court, unless there is a case. The victim never accused.”

Unfortunately, several cases in the UAE specifically evidence that the threat of imprisonment and deportation felt by victims is strongly grounded in reality. In one case, a Filipina domestic worker worker was jailed for adultery. The judgement was ascertained largely because the worker lacked a representative during her trial. In 2012, a British expatriate who reported a rape was instead fined for drinking. In another case, a domestic worker was raped by her sponsor’s son and locked up for the duration of her resulting pregnancy. She was then jailed for participating in an “illicit relationship.”

6.“The report did not differentiate between exploitation of workers and contractual problems.”

In many cases, contractual issues comprises a conduit for exploitation - the two are not independent of one another.

One of officials' few prudent suggestions included the need for bilateral and multilateral policy coherence. Many exploitative practices, contract substitution in particular, are facilitated and amplified by differential labor policies or enforcement schemes in sending and origin countries.

However, the generally obdurate perspectives related by UAE officials indicate an unwillingness to acknowledge not only the need for extensive policy reform, but even more generally the reality of the region’s pervasive exploitation of migrant workers. Though the Committee recently announced a new 2013 initiative to expand awareness of trafficking in airports and more generally to “take forward its programmes on combating human trafficking,” such efforts are fragmentary at best; the failure to address regulatory factors that facilitate trafficking throughout the duration of the migration process, as well as the failure to acknowledge the various manifestations of forced labor, subverts the capacity for effective resolutions.