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“I already bought you”: new report details slave-like conditions for UAE workers

For poor women around the world, the chance to become a domestic worker in the wealthy United Arab Emirates can seem like a life-changing opportunity. Unfortunately, as detailed in a new report from Human Rights Watch, many of the women who travel to the UAE to become domestic workers are horribly abused by their employers and recruiting agents.

The rights violations that Human Rights Watch documented include women being raped and physically abused by their employers. For instance, "Arti L." a 22-year-old from Indonesia, reported that her sponsor raped her, beat her with a cable, banged her head against a wall, spit on her, and threatened her with a knife.

At the heart of the problem is a system called "kafala," which ties migrant workers to specific employers, making it nearly impossible for the workers to leave if they are abused, overworked, or deprived of their salaries. According to the report:

In the UAE, as elsewhere in the region, the kafala system ties migrant workers to individual employers who act as their visa sponsors, and restricts migrant workers' abilities to change employers. The system gives employers great power over employees because it entitles them to revoke sponsorship at will. This automatically removes the right of a worker to remain in the UAE and triggers repatriation procedures.

Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the UAE's labor law and from the basic protections that the law and other labor policies afford to most other workers, such as limits on working hours and provision for overtime pay. Domestic workers have virtually no legal safeguards governing their employment. The UAE authorities have been considering a draft law on domestic workers for several years but they have yet to make the draft public, let alone enact it. Media reports suggest that the draft contains fewer and weaker safeguards for domestic workers than those afforded to other migrant workers under the labor law.

While reports of domestic worker abuse in the UAE are unfortunately not new, the report underscores how pervasive the problem is there, and the need for serious reform to protect vulnerable workers.

And it's an important counterbalance to the UAE's recent public image boost in the US as progressive on social issues, based on the participation of female Emirati Air Force pilot Maryam Al-Mansouri in the strikes against ISIS. Hopefully the report will inspire the UAE to protect these vulnerable women.

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