Slave states: a story of survival in the Gulf

By Yasin Kakande*

African migrants are increasingly moving to rich Gulf States in search of opportunity. More often than not they find exploitation. This is Harriet’s story.

Sunset over Dubai, UAE. Credit: Paolo Margari.
Sunset over Dubai, UAE. Credit: Paolo Margari.

For the millions of people who flock to rich Gulf States to take up jobs as cleaners or builders, the opportunity to work is typically seen as a rare chance for employment and the empowerment that comes with it. Usually from poor countries where prospects are weak, huge numbers of workers have journeyed to glittering Gulf States in recent years in the hope of making a living.

In fact, the numbers are so high that migrants now make up the majority of many Gulf States’ populations. An estimated 7.8 million of the UAE’s 9.2million population are non-nationals, for example, while 70% of Kuwait’s population and 85% of Qatar’s is made up of foreigners. These countries rely on migrant labour to function, though the relationship between employers and employees is far from equal.

Migrants come for work, but many ultimately find themselves trapped, exploited and abused. The government policy known as kafala requires workers to have a local sponsor to work or stay in many of these countries, and this requirement gives employers enormous power over their employees who are unable to change jobs or leave without their consent.

Under this system then, millions of workers have no means of escape and few rights. They find themselves brutally exploited, their movement controlled, and their wellbeing disregarded. Reports of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, of torture, and of suicides are widespread. And there is often no way out.

The fruits of imported workers can be seen all across the Gulf States, not least in the form of the huge skyscrapers built on migrant labour, but the experiences of these individuals are usually hidden below the shiny surfaces of the cities, and go unreported and unheard. Migrants typically come from South and East Asia, but they are increasingly coming from Africa now too. Below is the story of Harriet, just one such migrant from Uganda.

Harriet’s story

Harriet, a young woman in her mid-20s, was an aircraft cleaner with a large private security company. She had worked with one of my school friends in Kampala before coming to Dubai, UAE.

That’s how we first got in touch, and we met at Al Khail Mall in the Al Qouz Industrial Area 4. This was a short distance from her accommodation, a room she shared with three other women, one also from Uganda and two from the Philippines. Harriet started by showing me a few pictures of functions, mostly weddings, that she had taken while in Uganda and then handed me her CV. I noticed that she had a higher diploma in social sciences from one of Uganda’s largest institutions of learning.

Driven by unemployment for about a year back home, Harriet had decided to seek opportunities in Dubai. A recruitment company had taken her on and charged her $600 for her air ticket, visa and recruitment fees. She had now been in Dubai for about six months and was cleaning aeroplanes at Dubai International Airport. She showed me a rash on her arms and part of her face, explaining that she got them from exposure to a cleaning detergent called Bacoban. She had complained to her supervisors, who took her to a hospital where she received treatment. But she had only recently found out that to cover the cost of the visit, her salary had been slashed from 800 dirhams ($215) a month to just 200 dirhams ($54).

Harriet had intended to return to hospital as the rash had persisted and the constant itching made her sick. But she was forced to cancel these plans. Not only could she not afford another pay cut, but many companies here issue penalties for taking time off, even for illness.

Harriet said she was repeatedly required to work more than the stipulated hours in a day without a single break to even drink water. She told me of a colleague from Kenya who had fainted inside the plane because the air conditioning was not working and she had not eaten or drunk anything since early in the morning. There were some women, Harriet said, who took food or water from inside the plane, but this was a serious risk if caught.

Her work supervisor meanwhile, a man from India who hardly spoke any English, regularly harassed her verbally, physically and sexually. When she was cleaning, he would lean down to touch her buttocks. When she asked what he was doing, he would tell her, “Sorry, banana standing. This banana big problem.”

All of Harriet’s colleagues complained amongst themselves but no one dared report him to their superiors. In the past, one of their co-workers had been dismissed after she reported a similar incident of sexual harassment. “They would twist everything and turn it around accusing you of being a prostitute,” said Harriet.

The only thing Harriet was grateful for was her one day off each week, a privilege considering that few other employees – such as security guards – were afforded the same luxury. Having said that, Harriet would spend her days off staying in bed crying, though she was glad to have this chance to weep in private so she could avoid breaking down in public. Crying was the only way she could reduce the burden of her problems, she said.


Outside work, Harriet’s situation was just as miserable. In her accommodation, all sorts of activities were forbidden. Cooking, for example, was prohibited with workers required to buy food from restaurants despite their meagre salaries. Residents were also banned from washing their clothes; instead, the management insisted they use the coin-operated washing machine which cost four dirhams ($1.20) just to launder work uniforms. For Harriet and others, violating these rules was the only way for them to survive and they would prepare meals using secretly-stashed cooking utensils and did their laundry covertly in bathtubs and sinks. The fear of being caught and punished brought additional stress.

Harriet also felt unsafe about leaving her room and going around the surrounding area. Although her quarters were reserved for women, groups of men gathered around the complex, begging and baiting women to come out. The situation was worst at night. When I dropped her off one evening at around 7:30pm, the premises were very busy and although the space was meant to be for women only, most of the people in the compound were men. Cars, ranging from the latest models of Land Cruisers to older makes of Toyota Corollas, constantly streamed in and out.

Harriet told me that most women complemented their paltry earnings with prostitution and that these cars were not here to pick up or drop off friends and girlfriends but women working as prostitutes. Some women were dropped off down the road at Al Khail Mall and walked the short distance back home to disguise their activities.

I reasoned that most of the men who simply crowded around the compound were only there to look at the female residents, unable to afford paying for their services, but Harriet said it was a matter of price discrimination. She challenged me to walk around the dark corridors of the neighbouring buildings that acted as short-time lodges.

She also told me that were reports of men raping women who happened to pass by at night. This was the one thing worried the female residents the most and stopped them from leaving the premises, especially once night had fallen. They would rather go hungry and sleep without eating anything than walk the short distance to a restaurant or Al Khail mall. They were trapped.


In the ensuing weeks after our first meeting, Harriet checked out jobs in the classifieds and sent emails as per my advice. She received a few responses but was always asked if her sponsor was willing to give a No Objection Consent (NOC) letter to facilitate a change in jobs and sponsors in the UAE.

She had no idea about such a document and when she queried her employer’s human resources office, she was told that they did not give out such letters and was instructed that she’d be banned from working in the UAE if she tried to change jobs.

Under the kafala system, Harriet was at the mercy of her sponsor, but mercy was not something her employer was willing to extend. She was essentially bound to servitude until her contract was over. Harriet had no choice but to keep her head down, do what she could to ease her pain, and persevere through to the end of her two-year contract.

Fortunately for Harriet, she made it through and was finally able to find a new job after her ordeal. She now works a saleswoman in a cosmetics shop in Dubai. This job brings with it its own difficulties and challenges, but they are small compared to those she faced in her previous employment. “I still consider the two years I worked as a cleaner the worst experience of my life,” she says.

But while Harriet survived and escaped, others have taken her place as a cleaner and many millions more face the same conditions as she did, and worse, across the Gulf States. These countries serve as a portal for hopeful but vulnerable migrants from across Asia and, increasingly, Africa. They come here looking for opportunity, but are more often than not met with exploitation facilitated by hugely unequal and unjust employment laws.

This article is based on an excerpt from Yasin Kakande’s forthcoming book Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region.

*Source African Arguments.Yasin Kakande is a Ugandan journalist who has reported from the Middle East for over a decade. His first book, The Ambitious Struggle: An African Journalist’s Journey of Hope and Identity in a Land of Migrants, was published in October 2013.

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