Mirage in the Desert Oasis: Forced Labor in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates

By Caplin, Jessica | Harvard International Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Mirage in the Desert Oasis: Forced Labor in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates


Caplin, Jessica, Harvard International Review


One hundred forty-three of the 192 countries in the world are involved in human trafficking. Though our civilization is currently flirting for the second time with globalization, enhanced technologically and scientifically from its first experiment in the pre-World War I era, it nevertheless carries the vestiges of its most primitive beginnings. If the lasting stone monuments of the ancient world were built by slave labor, it seems that the modern world is experiencing a forced labor of its own. Approximately 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are sold across international borders annually, while millions more are sold within their own borders to feed the demands of industry and the sex market. Of the people trafficked across international borders, 80 percent are women and girls and 50 percent are minors, according to the 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP).

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This phenomenon of trafficking, while global, can be witnessed most particularly in the confluence of wealth and people that is Dubai, UAE. After its transformation from desert, Dubai is now known throughout the world as a leading financial center of the Middle East, enjoying prestige and fascination worldwide as well as a dynamic construction campaign at home. Fifty percent of the world's cranes are currently active in the Emirate, servicing projects totaling roughly US$100 billion, twice the foreign investment of rising star China. Home to the world's only seven star hotel and a string of man-made island creations, Dubai's glitter and wealth hides a more subtle aspect of its impressive growth: the forced labor of migrant workers in both construction and domestic work. And while the emirate has turned its attention to this issue, it must face the reality that behind its shiny facade, the majority of its population is not free.

Migrant Workers and Forced Labor

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that around 12.3 million men, women, and children worldwide are enslaved in bonded labor, child labor, forced labor, sexual servitude, and involuntary servitude. The ready supply of vulnerable populations for human trafficking is a logical result of the post-War economy: as the world grows ever richer, the schism between the wealthy and the impoverished widens. Trafficking victims often come from deep poverty. Some are sold outright by their families. Other families are fooled into believing that their children are recruited for programs that will provide them with food, clothing, and opportunities. In the areas of origin for most victims, 50 to 60 percent of the population makes an average salary of US$1 per day. An industry of economic extremes, trafficking generates an estimated US$9.5 billion in revenue each year. Human trafficking is most frequently associated with sexual servitude, which includes forced prostitution of children as well as women. The aspect of forced labor in human trafficking, however, is less recognized and acknowledged.

Of the 100 to 125 million people living outside their country of birth, the ILO estimates that 120 million of them are migrant workers. The TIP 2006 cited the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as leading suppliers of migrants--poorer countries where the opportunity cost of leaving home to find work is low. The leading demanders of migrants by contrast are wealthier Asian and Middle Eastern countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Kuwait. Combined, these countries demanded 13.5 million migrant workers. Dubai, with a population that is only 20 percent Emirati and 80 percent foreign born, with nearly 50 percent of the total population originating in South Asia, is a melange of nationalities. Indeed, it is estimated that 160 countries are represented in the city. In search of income to send back in the form of remittances, men primarily from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan arrive in Dubai to join the construction industry. …

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