UAE Foreign Service Workers’ Predicament

Taxis are plentiful in Dubai and reasonably priced in relation to other goods and services. Distances can be great and temperatures often sweltering; plus, it seemed the walk to and from the rail stations to my destinations would be lengthy. That is how I came to take approximately 20 taxi rides during a week of sightseeing in Dubai in April to celebrate a milestone birthday.

By the time I had taken three cabs, I recognized a pattern: All my taxi drivers were Pakistani men, and all seemed to fall in the 25 to 40 age range.

I hired a car for a full day exploring four of the other emirates, so I had a lot of time with my driver, Abdul (not his real name.) He told me he had lived in Dubai for 13 years and had a wife and 12-year-old daughter back in Karachi. He said he sees his family once a year but that they communicate frequently through WhatsApp. Abdul was accepting of the situation; content to have steady work and be able to support his family.

According to the Dubai government website, the minimum monthly salary requirement to sponsor a spouse and children is 4,000 dirhams ($1,089) a month, and 10,000 dirhams ($2,772) a month to sponsor parents. However, “expatriate workers who fall into certain categories such as domestic help and labourers are not allowed to sponsor their families even if they fulfil the minimum salary requirements.”

Why not? The UAE is “heavily reliant on foreign labor to sustain economic growth and a high standard of living,” states, but while workers like Abdul earn enough to support their families in their home countries, they don’t earn enough to support them if they came to live in the UAE where the cost of living greatly eclipses that of Pakistan. There are negligible amounts of poverty and crime in the UAE and the country wants to keep it that way. The UAE does not make public its crime statistics, but the United States Department of State Office of Diplomatic Security acknowledges that in Dubai, “The majority of crime is reported in areas populated primarily by lower income, temporary laborers originating from other countries.” 

It’s an odd concept for Americans to grasp that Emiratis are by far the minority in their own country, composing only an estimated 11 to 13 percent of the population. According to the website of the UAE embassy in Washington, D.C., “seven million foreign workers in the UAE are employed by 260,000 organizations, representing nearly 200 countries. Over 90 percent of the private sector labor force consists of expatriate workers, creating unique challenges for the UAE.”

Although striking is illegal, there have been strikes and outcries about migrant workers’ low wages and reports of dismal working and living conditions. According to a 2014 New York Times report about construction workers building NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, these workers earned around 1,000 dirhams a month, equivalent to $272.

The International Labor Organization states that in the UAE, due to an employment law called kafala, which requires foreign workers to be sponsored and tied solely to one Emirati sponsor, “fees extracted by their employer can together effectively produce conditions of debt bondage for workers who cannot leave their job and return home because they have no passport, cannot change employers and must repay banks or moneylenders back home.” On the other hand, labor law reforms protecting workers went into effect in 2017 and an Emirati vlogger (Khalid Al Ameri’s) brief video thanking Filipinos for their contributions to his country has been viewed nearly 6.5 million times since it was posted in January 2018.. With 1.9 million followers on Facebook, Al Ameri is an influencer and uses his platform to spread messages of tolerance and respect for different cultures.

I have an American friend who is a professor at a university in Abu Dhabi. She lives on campus with her husband and three children but her domestic worker, a Filipina named Ana (also a pseudonym), is not allowed to bring her family to live with her in Abu Dhabi. Ana’s young children are being raised by her mother back home, making Ana one of 2.3 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) worldwide and 352,000 in the UAE, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. The World Bank reported that OFWs sent $33 billion home in 2017, a figure that totaled 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, and part of $613 billion in what economists call “remittances” to home countries from all nationalities tallied globally.

According to the Migration Policy Institute: “Immigrants from Asia and the Middle East and North African (MENA) region have dominated the low- and semi-skilled sectors, while workers from the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada, and various Western European countries have become concentrated in the UAE’s key high-skilled sectors.”

There is no minimum wage requirement in the UAE. Abdul and other taxi drivers are private sector employees, and as such are not supposed to work more than eight hours a day, six days a week. However, taxi drivers work on commission, so 12-hour days are common in order to meet daily targets and earn enough to cover work-related expenses like uniforms and work visas, not to mention personal expenses such as housing and food. A typical driver receives 20 to 30 percent of their total fares, so if they meet their daily target of around 425 dh ($116), a driver on the high end of the commission scale ends up pocketing $35.

Ana and millions of other foreign domestic workers (a category that also includes “household shepherd” and “household falcon carer and trainer”), are entitled to employer-provided lodging, a maximum 12-hour work day, one day off per week, 30 paid vacation days, medical insurance, and one round trip ticket every two years.

All well and good, but at what personal cost?


Anastasia Mills Healy

Anastasia Mills Healy is a career travel writer and editor whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Fodor’s, Time Out, and Zagat, among others. “Stasha,” as she is known, has traveled to 59 countries on five continents and is particularly proud of having visited all 50 US states.

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