Illustration by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

Local Perspectives on Migrant Labour in the GCC

Laborers in the UAE and surrounding GCC countries tend to originate from developing nations throughout Asia. They usually work as either domestic ...

Mar 15, 2014

Illustration by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
Laborers in the UAE and surrounding GCC countries tend to originate from developing nations throughout Asia. They usually work as either domestic helpers or construction workers in the hope of finding higher incomes and better standards of living than their home countries provide.
“I have four children back home — in India — so I have to do something big to generate enough income to feed them all,” said Mahesh Bhatia, a labourer working at the World Trade Centre Mall construction site.
“If I stayed in India, I would make half the money I make right now. So if it means I have to stay away from my family and live in harsher conditions to keep them alive, I will happily do it,” Bhatia added.
In addition to oil revenues, these tens of thousands of migrant workers are the main drivers of economic growth in the region. Recently, there have been many reported instances of violence, seizure of passports, and provision of substandard living quarters.
“In Jordan we have a lot of these problems, especially with household maids who are very common [to hire], but they are never as extreme as the cases I have heard about in the UAE,” said NYU Abu Dhabi freshman Kamel Al Sharif from Jordan.
“It is worrisome to see acts of violence against the migrants on the news, but I'm not really sure what we are doing to effectively put a stop to it. There are talks, op-eds and meetings to discuss the ongoing issues, but we have still to reach a tangible solution,” Al Sharif added.
Roop Mehra, an official at a construction company in Dubai, pointed out that the UAE, along with other GCC nations, is trying very hard to solve these problems.
“At one point the situation was so bad that the region was labeled for modern slavery,” said Mehra.
“The government has renewed its financial support for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and contributes to a number of human rights funds for victims of torture, human trafficking and modern slavery. We as construction companies, which employ a majority of these migrants, have to meet more stringent quality checks too. They are really trying their best to revamp the situation,” added Mehra.
Others, however, believe that these problems are not entirely the fault of the government because lack of regulation is only one aspect of the problem. NYUAD junior and Qatari national Sara Al Shamlan explained that many times the laborers live in crowded homes to save money so that they can send more back home. A lack of strict regulation only makes such things easier, Al Shamlan believes, and she does not think that the extreme criticism will result in affirmative action.
“This region is supported by Islam, which gives us the basis and morals to approach these issues. Human rights and being fair to others is a large part of [the religion]. It has taught me to advocate for their rights in the simplest ways possible. It is our responsibility as individuals to advocate in this way,” said Al Shamlan.
Al Shamlan plans to write her senior thesis on this form of advocacy in the region. She wants to build a deeper connection with the laborers through the arts so that they are no longer living on the fringe of the society.
Mitali Banerji is deputy features editor. Email her at 
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