Migration in the Middle East: On the Ground in the UAE

October 12, 2010
  • Guy Morgan

    Former Director, Advisory Services, BSR

On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, I was given the great honor of delivering a presentation on CSR and employees at the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. The presentation was part of a seminar sponsored by Eta Ascom Star Group, UAE to look at the issue of mental health among migrant workers in the Emirates and intended to offer insights into what leading companies around the globe are doing to support and protect their employees. The seminar was eye opening for a number of reasons.

First, the seminar drove home the importance of migrant labor for the Emirates, and the region as a whole. Statistics vary, but those quoted in the seminar stated that there are 1.71 million Indian workers in the UAE—90 percent of whom are unskilled laborers. One corporate welfare officer I spoke with noted that 80 percent of the working population in the UAE is comprised of expatriate workers. Migrant workers are the life-blood of the economy—they are the taxi drivers, hotel staff, construction workers, restaurant wait-staff. These blue-collar workers are typically lodged in huge “camps” 30-50 kilometers out of the major cities. They commute each day to work in large buses which went out of production 20 years ago. They are isolated from their families who have been left behind in their countries of origin and, according to experts at the seminar, are susceptible to mental health problems. Depression among migrant worker populations is also fueling increasing suicide rates.

Second, the seminar highlighted some of the work already underway to develop a safety net for blue collar migrant workers in the UAE. This is being spearheaded by the Indian Embassy with the support of the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Labor. In the course of the past year, the Indian Embassy has negotiated a way to streamline the migrant worker contracting process, avoid contract duplication, and ensure that Indian workers have an improved means of redress with the Indian government should they have cause to do so. Additionally, the embassy is establishing help desks and telephone hotlines for Indian workers should they need to discuss their individual situations, receive advice, and get support. Already these are great achievements in a short amount of time and there are plans to do much more.

In articulating the migrant recruitment process, a representative from the community welfare wing at the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi touched on what is needed to positively impact the lives of migrant workers—improving both the pre-departure process (recruitment agency licensing and auditing, the contracting situation), and post arrival training (cultural issues, financial management, safety, health.) The steps they have taken are not complicated, yet they are clear evidence of a sending country government proactively using the resources at its disposal to better protect basic migrant worker rights.

These are great achievements in a short amount of time, but there is still much to do in finding ways to implement a change which has the support of business, civil society, and government. This seminar brought to light important questions that all three groups must tackle: Why are sending and receiving country governments in the Global South not doing more to protect the most vulnerable workers? And why are more companies not reaching out to governments in more strategic ways to further encourage such positive steps?

Our work over the next few months will be to help answer these questions by continuing to engage in the region, unearth good practices, and partner with employers, government, and other stakeholders.

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