When people think of Dubai, the sky-rise buildings and the epitome of modern society come to mind. Glitz, glamour and sophistication. However, in reality, that’s not the whole story. It is a well-known fact that Dubai is a melting pot of different cultures, with foreigners making up 88.5 percent of United Arab Emirates citizens.

“Rich, modern, aesthetic,” said Audrey Adisaputro, an upper school student from Indonesia when asked to describe Dubai. “I love the Palm Island, it reminds me of Fast and Furious. Oh, and camels.”

But the only reason Dubai has been able to grow at such a rapid rate is due to the cheap, and often inhumanely-treated labor imported from countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While exact figures are not known, it is estimated that there are three million of these workers in the UAE alone. Dubai is only one of the dozens of cities in the Gulf which are notorious for the appalling treatment of migrant workers.

Stories of horrifying abuse float around the Gulf, all with a similar story: workers lured by promises of high wages and a comfortable life in a Gulf country like the UAE. However, when they arrive they live in deplorable conditions, they don’t receive the promised wages and they face abuse from their employer. The worst part is they can’t escape the situation as local and Indian authorities fail to provide timely help.

What makes the situation even more dangerous for migrant workers in Gulf Countries is the Kalafa system. Kalafa means sponsorship in Arabic. Kalafa is a system of control, a way for the government to allocate the responsibilities for migrant workers to private citizens or companies. The system gives the sponsors or employers a set of legal rights to control workers so without the sponsor’s permission, workers cannot change jobs, quit jobs, or leave the country. If these workers attempt to leave without permission, the employers can cancel their residence visa, turning them into illegal residents of the country, making them criminals.

The main issue with the Kalafa system in the many countries is that it makes it extremely difficult for workers to report abuse or attempt to change jobs as there is the constant risk that the sponsor will cancel their residence visa and have them deported. Hence, they can’t do anything if any of their legal rights are violated or even when they face abuse because if they complain, the sponsor has the power to have them deported.

Kalafa itself may not be horrible as a theory in itself. However, in reality, its implementation in a rapidly developing country like the UAE can have horrendous consequences. By law, it is illegal for employers to confiscate passports under regulations passed by the Gulf countries.

Nevertheless, passport confiscation remains a common practice that employers use to further keep workers in check because governments have failed to punish employers for holding passports. Normally, when workers ask embassies or local councils to help them get back their passports, they typically get little help.

However, it is important to acknowledge that Kalafa is not the only thing leading to the abuse of worker’s rights in Gulf countries. Language barriers, along with corruption in the recruiting system also prevail. Many migrant workers don’t speak Arabic or even English. This means that they cannot ask for help in government offices, use official government help hotlines (many countries only offer services in Arabic), read legal documents, or use online services. 

Regardless of the country, the treatment of workers needs to become a priority in these countries. A city like Dubai is driven by progress and progress should include progress for everyone.