A foreign domestic worker with a child under a billboard in the United Arab Emirates.

© 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

Amidst the turmoil of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates cultivates an image as a stable, center of modernity, symbolized by the gleaming peak of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

But down on the ground, among the construction sites that pepper the landscape, thousands of low-paid migrant workers endure the risky toil of building the skyscrapers, monuments, and shopping malls. And even less visible are the thousands of migrant domestic workers from Asia and Africa who work for well-off families in their spacious homes and luxury city apartments. Tucked away from scrutiny, these women face myriad abuses.

Last month, a new Human Rights Watch report documented how the UAE’s kafala visa-sponsorship system ties foreign domestic workers to individual employers, exposing them to greater abuse and exploitation. It described how the UAE’s denial of labor law protections opens migrant domestic workers to rights violations by employers and others, including confiscation of passports, 21-hour work days without rest periods, and no days off. Domestic workers also reported that they were sometimes confined to employers’ homes, insulted, denied food, beaten, and sometimes sexually abused. In some cases, the abuses amounted to trafficking or forced labor.

Tomorrow the third round of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue begins, a meeting of Gulf and Asian countries that the UAE initiated, to discuss “best practices” in managing labor migration to the Gulf states. Ninety nongovernmental organizations and trade unions called on the participating countries to improve labor law protections and address abusive immigration policies and practices.

The UAE will likely tout changes such as electronic wage payment for construction workers, and improvements to its standard contract for domestic workers. But these reforms fall far short of those needed to ensure migrant workers’ rights.

Instead, the UAE should reform the kafala system and extend labor law protections to all migrant workers. Otherwise, the bitter truth will continue to tarnish its lofty, self-image.