Today, the US State Department issued its annual trafficking in persons (TIP) report, examining what countries around the world are doing to stop trafficking and forced labor.

The report provides fresh information on how migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are at high risk of trafficking and forced labor. The report ranks the UAE in “Tier 2,” meaning that it does not fully comply with minimum standards established in US law, but is making “significant efforts” to comply.  

As one of the top 10 richest countries in the world, famous for its skyscrapers and glitzy malls, the UAE owes much of its success to the vast supply of cheap, migrant labor. Migrant workers perform difficult, dangerous jobs in the UAE, including as construction and domestic workers. An estimated 88.5% of the UAE’s population are non-nationals.

The TIP report criticizes the UAE for policies that put migrant workers in jeopardy, especially its kafala (visa sponsorship) system, which ties workers’ visas to their employer and restricts their ability to change employers. It also criticized the country’s narrow focus on sex trafficking rather than on trafficking into a range of forced labor situations. It called for the implementation of the draft law on domestic workers which has been awaiting approval since 2012. The UAE labor law explicitly excludes domestic workers from its protections.

The report criticized: “Restrictive sponsorship laws for foreign domestic workers give employers power to control domestic workers’ movements, threaten them with abuse of legal processes, and make them vulnerable to exploitation.”

Human Rights Watch has documented trafficking and forced labor of construction and domestic workers in the UAE. Workers building universities, museums, and more reported high recruitment debts in their home countries and being trapped in forced labor. Some domestic workers said recruiters had lied to them about their salaries and working conditions. Many said employers had taken their passports and made them work excessive hours with no rest. Some reported that employers beat them and threatened them if they wanted to leave.  

The UAE has laws against trafficking and forced labor, but a clear lead from its political and judicial authorities is needed to ensure that these do not remain as mere paper protection but are actually implemented.