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Know Your Rights: Facebook group offers UAE migrants advice on labour law

On March 20, 2015

Migrants in GCC countries regularly struggle to access justice, especially in the resolution of legal and labor disputes. For this reason, 58-year-old Gopa Kumar started a Facebook page to advise to low-income migrants in the United Arab Emirates. Having lived in the Emirates for 30 years and struggled personally with the alienating Emirati bureaucracy, Kumar shares his knowledge and experiences with fellow migrants.

300 users join the “UAE Labor Law - Clarifications” page everyday and new inquiry is posted on the page almost every hour. Most inquiries come from domestic workers unsure about how to change employers or report abuse. Kumar told that many of the domestic workers who seek his advice endure up to 12 hours of work each day, without rest or holidays. He also noted that many employees complain of not being paid extra time or granted benefits. Kumar told that Filipina domestic workers lodge about half of the inquiries received by his page.

Now, the Facebook page is no longer limited to what Mr. Kumar’s advise. Migrants comment on one another’s wall posts, bringing in their own experience and suggestions. Many of the questions are detailed; inquiring about possible travel bans if they end their contracts, about passports confiscated by employers, contract-termination issues, fines and penalties. Some also share their experiences with the state: one migrant noted that the labor ministry failed to respond to his colleagues’ complaint about confiscated passports, which discouraged him from reporting his own complaint.

Issues regarding working hours and changing employers are those most commonly discussed on the page. Aside from domestic workers, Kumar’s page also receives many complaints from low-income laborers. Some workers manage to find new jobs, but companies refuse to release them to another employer, wielding the power the Kafala system accords them.

“I want to help them be self-confident when going through legal procedures so they would know their rights and defend them.”

Kumar’s platform represents one variant of the many ways migrants to help one another navigate unfamiliar legal and bureaucratic systems. Kumar set up his page knowing that most migrants are limited in time and facilities,” and so constrained in their ability advise one another.

While Kumar’s platform received tremendous traffic, the complaints he receives represent a small portion of the abuses in the Emirates. Some low-income migrants, and domestic workers in particular, have limited access to the internet, while for others literacy and language present a significant barrier to accessing this information. For these reasons especially, it is essential for migrants to understand their rights prior to employment, and for states to take active initiative to provide workers with translators and legal aid.