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12 Oct 2023

Katie McQue, The Guardian (UK)

UAE: Female domestic workers tell of being "held captive" by agencies without food or pay

See all tags Allegations

"Revealed: allegations of abuse and captivity without pay at UAE’s lucrative recruitment agencies,"


Abuse within the UAE’s kafala system, which ties low-paid migrant workers’ legal status to their employers, has been well-documented. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse within their employers’ home, and those who do leave without their employers’ permission face criminal charges for “absconding”, punishable by fines, arrest, detention and deportation. Less well known are the conditions within the recruitment centres where women are kept, sometimes for months, until an employer is found.

The UAE has a population of 10.1 million, with migrants accounting for 90% of its inhabitants. Domestic workers are in high demand, making it a lucrative trade for recruitment agencies.

Domestic worker recruitment agencies require a licence from the government to operate. However, the Guardian has spoken with six women from Kenya and Uganda, including Nia, who alleged that they were abused, denied proper food or medical care, beaten and detained at Shamma Almahairi between 2020 and 2021, while the agency was licensed. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

The kafala system means that domestic workers are no longer trapped just by their employer, but also now by recruiters. This leaves them exposed to further abuse, including trafficking into forced labour, by recruiters in addition to their employers, and their rights under law become meaningless.
Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch


These matters were put to Shamma Almahairi and did not respond to a request request for comment...

The UAE government revoked Shamma Almahairi’s licence to operate in September, due to unpaid fines and other bureaucratic offences. Yet, women are still apparently being held in its accommodation, claims Mercy...

A spokesperson for the UAE government told the Guardian: “The UAE maintains a zero-tolerance policy towards workplace abuse...

“We conduct comprehensive investigations whenever individuals and/or entities act in such a manner that contravenes UAE legislation. Those that are found to be at fault are held accountable in line with UAE law and legislation..."