The UAE has a labour law the country can be proud of, but it isn't doing what it's supposed to do. Fortunately there is a solution.
Labour laws are only effective if workers know their rights
How many could live on Dh300 a month in Abu Dhabi? Recently I visited a labour camp, home to nearly 1,000 men for whom this was their monthly salary.
On that salary they were living in Abu Dhabi and supporting dependent families back home. The company was providing accommodation (a bed in a small dormitory room shared with up to eight others), shared bathroom facilities and one square meal a day. But that was it.
In this camp, practically every item on the federal labour law was being violated by the employer.
Employers are not allowed to keep passports, but none of these men had access to their passports.
Employers are supposed to pay airfare for trips home. I met one guy who had not been on holiday for 11 years because his employer would not pay his flight costs, and he couldn't afford them on his own.
Employers are supposed to pay a monthly salary. In this camp, the standard practice is that no one gets paid for the first three months of their employment.
Employers are supposed to provide health care. In this camp workers are fined up to Dh100 a day if they cannot work due to ill health (bearing in mind that they are paid only Dh300 in the first place). This information was posted on a noticeboard along with the names of offenders.
For the privilege of working for this company and earning such a lowly wage, many of the workers had paid agents back home up to Dh7,000 up front, to get a visa.
Why would people subject themselves to such treatment? Why not complain to the authorities about blatant violations of the law? How can employers get away with this?
The simple answer is that the workers know that for every one who is deported for not falling in line with the will of the company, there are literally hundreds waiting to take his place. You see, the situation in their home country is even worse. In a sense they are seen as the lucky ones.
In the Kuwaiti documentary film The Butler, the same point is made, through visual contrast between the glossy luxurious environments of shopping malls, modern roadworks and bustling construction sites in the Gulf with the shabby dirty polluted environments of the workers' home countries.
As the camera scans the listless unemployed youth lounging around shanty towns, The Butler screams the message: "See where they come from - they are damn lucky to be working here in the Gulf." Such a blatant piece of propaganda fails to justify the behaviour of employers.
Clearly it is not the fault of the host country that there is abject poverty in the homelands of many workers. It is not the fault of the employers that there are vicious loan sharks who hold people in a bondage of spiralling debt, crippling interest rates and the threat of violence, to ensure repayment. It is not the fault of the Government that corruption in sending countries has created a huge black market for labour visas.
Governments cannot regulate the greed which drives so many companies to blatant exploitation. The sheer scale of the problem, the number of workers and camps, makes it very difficult to police. But here's the thing: the labour laws of the UAE are progressive. They are fair, and the rights of employer and workers are clearly defined. There is protection. There is a system.
That the law is not enforced has more to do with the fact that many people do not know their rights under the law. Employers may understandably resist a greater awareness of labour law by their workers, but improving workers' familiarity with the legal code will make working life much more fair and tolerable in the UAE. The labour laws of the UAE are readily available online, and employers and government officials must do more to promote them.
A policeman told me recently, "Don't bring me a problem - bring me a solution!" The solution would be to report an offending company to the police and ask the courts to reinforce for workers the rights which are theirs under the labour laws of the UAE. But the likely response of the employer would then be to send all the workers home without compensation and set up a new company to do the same thing all over again.
And that is why a new approach - empowering workers at the ground level with knowledge - is what is needed now.
The Reverend Canon Andy Thompson is the chaplain of St Andrew's Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi and author of Christianity in the UAE: Culture and Heritage