The plight of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates has made news for the second time this year.
First there was the New York Times story on the inhumane treatment and near–indentured servitude of construction workers at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi. Then last month, Human Rights Watch published a report on the horrifying abuses migrant domestic workers suffer in the U.A.E..
A slew of articles in recent weeks relayed the report’s findings: women’s being raped and physically abused by their employers, forced to work long hours with no breaks or overtime pay, denied access to food and medical care, and underpaid or even not paid at all. Some of the abuses “amounted to forced labor or trafficking.”
The chief culprit for the abuses is what’s known as the “kafala system.” The HRW report describes the system as follows:
In the U.A.E., as elsewhere in the region, the kafala system ties migrant workers to individual employers who act as their visa sponsors, and restricts migrant workers’ abilities to change employers. The system gives employers great power over employees because it entitles them to revoke sponsorship at will. This automatically removes the right of a worker to remain in the U.A.E. and triggers repatriation procedures.
The kafala system and domestic workers’ exclusion from protections under labor law work in tandem to make these women extremely vulnerable to abuse.
But the similar plight of migrant workers under United States guestworker programs has not garnered such attention. None of these articles mention that the US has its own version of the kafala system.
We, too, grant visas to “guestworkers,” foreign workers who come to the U.S. legally and temporarily, returning to their home countries after their work is finished. The guestworker program for low-skill labor is known as H-2. And H-2 workers’ legal status—like that of many guestworkers—is tied to the employer who sponsored their visa. If they quit or are fired, even in abusive situations, they’re deportable.
It’s an American kafala system—we just don’t call it that.
In the U.S., the practice goes by the bureaucratic name of “non-portability”—the job is not “portable” to another employer. But does it lead to the kinds of abuses rife in the repressive U.A.E.? Perhaps not of the same magnitude. But it does engender abuses of the same class.
A rash of reports by nonprofits and the Government Accountability Office have documented abuses in the H-2 program much like those migrant domestic workers in the U.A.E. suffer: wage theft, inhumanely long hours, no overtime pay, squalid living conditions, debt servitude, and lack of medical care. According to the GAO report, a hotel owner who forced his employees to work in substandard conditions told them they would be “sent home in a ‘box’ if they disobeyed orders.” A key recommendation of all of the nonprofits’ reports is to stop tying workers’ legal status to the employer who sponsored them.
Two days before the report on domestic workers in the U.A.E. came out, the Urban Institute and Northeastern University released a report on labor trafficking in the United States. Seventy-one percent of the labor trafficking victims they studied entered the U.S. legally on a temporary visa, most commonly an H-2 visa. The report found that non-portability makes H-2 workers “especially susceptible to labor trafficking.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, marine fabrication company Signal International brought 500 Indian men on H-2 visas to work in Gulf Coast shipyards. In 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit against Signal and its network of recruiters, alleging forced labor, human trafficking and fraud, among other violations.
According to the S.P.L.C., recruiters extracted up to $18,000 in fees per person by promising them permanent resident visas unavailable to H-2 workers. The men took out high-interest loans and mortgaged their homes to pay the fees, only to find themselves paying over a thousand dollars a month for room and board in overcrowded trailers with two toilets for twenty-four men.
Even after they discovered the degrading conditions and nonexistence of permanent residency visas, they could not switch employers because their visas were not "portable." And their debt made returning home equally untenable. The SPLC reported one worker as saying, "If I was forced to go back, I planned to hang myself once I landed in India, at the airport." Five more lawsuits against Signal followed last year.
The kafala system in the U.A.E. is under well-deserved scrutiny. In the aftermath of the exposures of labor abuses at NYU Abu Dhabi, both the university and the government of Abu Dhabi announced an investigation into labor conditions there. The abuses in the H-2 program suggest that the U.S.’s kafala system deserves similar scrutiny.