Over the past few decades, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—one of the world’s pre-eminent oil-rich nations located in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region—has become a popular destination for temporary labor migrants seeking employment opportunities and higher standards of living. In 2013, the UAE had the fifth-largest international migrant stock in the world with 7.8 million migrants (out of a total population of 9.2 million), according to United Nations (UN) estimates.
With immigrants, who come particularly from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, comprising over 90 percent of the country’s private workforce, the UAE attracts both low- and high-skilled migrants due to its economic attractiveness, relative political stability, and modern infrastructure—despite a drop in oil prices and the international banking crisis in 2008.
Heavily reliant on foreign labor to sustain economic growth and high standard of living in the country, the UAE government in 1971 introduced a temporary guest worker program called the Kafala Sponsorship System, which allows nationals, expatriates, and companies to hire migrant workers. The Kafala system has posed a number of challenges for UAE policymakers both at home and in the eyes of international onlookers. Chief among them: ensuring economic opportunities for UAE nationals, and closing policy and implementation gaps to address widespread concerns that migrants fall victim to labor and human-rights abuses in the UAE.
Over the past several years, the UAE government has substantively reformed its laws to address the concerns of those who condemn the Kafala system for exposing migrant workers, especially domestic workers, to abusive practices. Recent measures have ranged from outlawing employer confiscation of workers’ passports to allowing workers to transfer employer sponsorship and introducing wage protection measures. Despite these efforts, human-rights and migrant organizations maintain that abusive labor practices have persisted at alarming rates, largely due to poor enforcement. Furthermore, the Kafala system poses many domestic challenges for UAE policymakers, from effectively controlling the costs of the program (according to researcher Mouawiya Al Awad, the UAE government invests approximately $3,000 per foreign-born worker to maintain its national infrastructure and services, e.g. police security and subsidized programs) to, more generally, ensuring economic opportunities for its own nationals.
Drawing from policy reports and interviews with UAE policymakers, this article examines the economic, social, and political challenges and implications of the Kafala system for the UAE government, Emirati nationals, and migrant workers in the UAE.