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Domestic workers suffer under the enduring kafala system

Tahira's arm was broken, after yet another vicious assault from her employer. I say "employer" – in reality, Tahira wasn't being paid. She slept on the floor of the house, with no blanket or mattress, and received only one meal per day. Her passport, from her native Indonesia, had been confiscated. She was being made to work 15 hours a day as a domestic worker in Dubai.

It was her right arm. It had been twisted behind her back so severely that it broke a bone above the wrist, causing her arm to swell and making it impossible for her to either to eat or work. Unswayed, her employer refused to take her to a doctor. Tahira worked on. Still unpaid.

Two months later, another assault. This time, a shoe had been thrown at Tahira's foot so forcefully it had drawn blood. That was enough. Tahira escaped – she found medical treatment. The doctor told her it was too late to treat her broken arm.

This is the reality for too many of the 146,000 women who work as domestic workers in the UAE, all migrants – from countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Ethiopia.

Many aren't abused. Browsing the classifieds pages in Dubai, you can see employers who are willing to pay for a flight home each year, good salaries and healthcare. They give time off each week and holiday allowances.

The problems begin if you happen upon an employer like Tahira's. The kafala (sponsorship) visa system, which has been denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur for migrant workers' rights, and the International Labour Organisation, continues to be enforced across the United Arab Emirates. When Tahira decided to run away, she became an illegal immigrant – as the validity of her visa depended on the sponsorship of her employer.

The UAE, who claim to be "making progress" on domestic workers' rights, refuse to repeal these laws. In fact, domestic workers have been specifically excluded from the meager labour reforms they have implemented for other categories of migrant workers, for example construction workers.

Why the exclusion? The ability of professional expats, many of them from Europe or North America, or the wealthy Emirati minority, to afford domestic workers in their households, provides a huge disincentive for the government to reform. Expats flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular, because low taxes and generous salaries provide them with a lifestyle they could never afford back home. Dubai and Abu Dhabi need those expats.

Those two Emirates in particular have also been built on low-skilled migrant labour. Since the 1970s, relative backwaters have been transformed through the hard work of others – home to skyscrapers, shopping malls, lavish hotels and beautiful apartments.

Racism is also a barrier to progress. It is common to see jobs advertised with a specification for "No Asians". Disillusioned expats frequently cite unabashed prejudice and bigotry in the UAE as a reason to leave.

Last year, an expat blogger spoke to a friend in the medical profession and wrote about their discussions in a post called "Salary Racism – What's the colour of your passport?" Indian nurses are paid roughly 2,500 dirhams ($681) per month, her friend said, while an Arab doing the same job is paid four times that. Europeans and Americans are paid the most – around 17,000 dirhams ($4,628) per month.

The logic behind these huge wage disparities is baffling. Hospitals, and the government, say the salaries are pegged to living costs in the employee's home countries. Yet, in the Emirates, the living costs for an Indian and a European are the same; they both live in the UAE.

Racism is more complex, however, than Emirati imperiousness. The desert nation has gone from being overwhelmingly Bedouin to prosperous and multicultural in little under half a century. Each group has their own prejudices – Indian workers in Dubai can be as disparaging towards African workers as their Emirati hosts are (and I stress can be, of course not all are). And while low-skilled jobs are traditionally dominated by south Asian workers, there are also many extremely wealthy and successful Indian business owners and entrepreneurs.

Removing the kafala system would have political ramifications for the Emirati elite. True citizens of the UAE are outnumbered seven to one by foreigners. Kafala reminds everyone who is boss, even if the Emiratis have made relatively little contributions to the success of their own nation.

Natives have built a reputation for being lazy, meaning that many companies are loathed to employ them – preferring harder working foreigners. The government has now embarked on a major push to move Emirati workers from the cushy public sector into the competitive private sector. Emiratis insist their attitude to work has changed, but progress is slow and company bosses remain skeptical.

In a report issued last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the UAE to reform. The monarchy that rules over the country isn't listening – it kicked the watchdog out earlier this year and forbade them from returning. Now, only government endorsed human rights organisations are permitted to operate. HRW approached dozens of departments and government officials for interview, but none replied. Their research, which makes for grim reading, is ominously entitled "I Already Bought You", in reference to a particularly callous remark from an employer of a Filipina domestic worker.

Britain remains one of the UAE's closest allies and most vocal supporter. A couple of weeks ago, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi visited David Cameron at Downing Street. Last week, the UAE-UK Taskforce met to congratulate themselves on closer ties and work out new ways to collaborate. By next year, the bilateral diplomatic group wants to increase the two-way trade to 71 billion dirhams ($19 billion).

Incredibly, Britain has even implemented its own version of the kafala system – now also tying the visas of domestic workers here in London to their employers. Similarly to the UAE, they now face low or no pay, little or no time off, verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Many move with their employers from Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

I also know of at least two Middle East embassies, here in London, where household workers have been physically and sexually abused. Still, the British government refuses to repeal the kafala-esque laws. A source at the Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration, excused the new legislation by telling me: "We've received complaints about domestic workers running away".

I wonder from whom – many rich Gulf Arabs have second homes in Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Belgravia. Britain is keen to attract their wealth.

The UAE, by virtue of its laissez-faire attitude to vulnerable migrant workers from the developing world, continues to be one of the boldest and most unapologetic human rights abusers in the region. While trade is good, it must come with conditions. The UK Foreign Office claims to be focused on ending violence against women, while our Home Secretary Theresa May has staked her reputation on "ending modern day slavery". So how about the 146,000 female domestic workers in the UAE?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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