An Indian carpenter recently flew all the way to India from Dubai to get his severed thumb sewed back on. The reason: his medical insurance. Like many of the 8 million migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates, his insurance policy did not take care of medical emergencies.
“It was his sheer luck more than anything else,” Aashish Chaudhary, the doctor who operated on him, told VICE World News. “His thumb had gotten accidentally stuck in a machine with a very sharp blade that almost sliced through it. We usually give a window of 14-15 hours, but he arrived from Dubai almost 18 hours after the accident.”
During the surgery, Chaudhary was pleasantly surprised to see the arteries around the carpenter’s thumb still working. “He has since recovered quite well, but this was the first time we were seeing a case like this. He told us that it was actually way cheaper for him to fly down to India, get operated here, and go back to Dubai.”
While this was the first time Chaudhary had to sew the thumb of a migrant worker back on in India, many loopholes in the UAE’s labour laws have left migrant workers vulnerable before. This is despite the UAE, whose population is 80 percent migrant workers, boasts of making great strides in migrant labour rights.
“The laws are clear: the employer must take care of workplace emergencies, provide health insurance for the worker and the extended family, and provide health cards. But the government does not demand any accountability to check if these laws are actually being implemented,” Rejimon Kuttappan, a migrant rights researcher who has worked with the International Labor Organization, told VICE World News.
A major obstacle many migrant workers face when accessing medical insurance is an illegal practice called “visa substitution,” he said. “Let’s say a company needs 50 engineers but they have approval for only 20 such visas. Many companies will then illegally hire engineers under driver or mason visas to complete their quota.”
If the injured worker’s job is different from what their visa states, Kuttappan explains, it means they get limited medical insurance coverage, such as when a chemical engineer hired under a driver visa gets burned while working in a factory.
Because of this, many migrant workers end up receiving very little protection, or none at all.
“If you analyse the medical insurance policy of almost every single migrant worker in the UAE,” said Abbas, a migrant worker from Pakistan who works in a perfume factory in Dubai, “only basic cough and cold are taken care of. There is no provision for dental treatment, sudden accidents or even diabetic strips.”
It is difficult to advocate for migrant rights in the UAE because as the rights group Amnesty International noted: torture, abuse, and arbitrary detention of human rights advocates are rife in the country. Abbas and other migrant workers VICE World News spoke to requested anonymity out of fear of getting censured and deported.
For Adnan, a 24-year-old construction worker working in Umm al-Qaiwain, the trouble started with his employer confiscating his passport the moment he landed in Dubai International airport seven years ago. Under UAE law, confiscating workers’ passports is prohibited, and workers do not require their employer's permission to leave the country.
Despite this law, the practice “is very common,” Adnan told VICE World News. “You are quite literally imprisoned by your employer. There is no way out. And paid leaves are completely out of the question.”
Both Adnan and his teenage brother continue to work on the construction of one of Dubai’s premier hotels. “He has fainted thrice already in the last one month, but we are scared to even drink water lest our employer accuses us of compromising on productivity.”
But the government seems to want to change conditions. Last month, the UAE announced a new set of labour laws to take effect starting February next year. They promise flexible working hours, better labour relations, anti-bullying guidelines, strict mandates against hiring teenagers, and paid leaves.
Murtaza, a 32-year-old who has been working at a perfume manufacturer in the UAE for nearly a decade, doubts the new labour laws will change anything. “The optics have become important for the Emirates now. The gulf region will suddenly be in the spotlight once again because the FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar next year. But don’t be fooled.”
Murtaza, who is a diabetic, makes sure to buy his medical needs – even those glucose test strips – from India. “I need those strips to monitor my blood sugar levels, but they are absurdly expensive in Dubai. One strip costs nearly a hundred dollars here, as opposed to getting nearly two dozen strips for less than ten dollars in India.”
Given Dubai’s less than sterling record with migrant workers, even the ongoing Expo 2020 was criticised for the treatment of its workers. In October this year, for the first time, the country officially admitted that five workers had died on the Expo site. However, the causes behind the deaths were never revealed.
“Another aspect to the situation is also the lack of standard job contracts,” said Kuttappan. “The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) prides itself in being a unified bloc on the economic front, but for migrant workers, the member states have different policies. In the case of the UAE, we can say that their laws on paper are better than North Korea’s – but that’s not the most ideal benchmark to have after all.”
What’s needed, Kuttappan adds, is socialization of reforms that target the so-called “tripartite nexus” that leaves migrant workers at a gross disadvantage – the kafala (an exploitative sponsorship system where an employer has total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status), visa substitution, and uniform job contracts. “Honoring of global conventions by both migrant-sending and receiving countries should happen. Workers should be seen as human beings. ‘Til then, these tragedies will keep happening.”
Adnan, currently in Mumbai and faced with an uncertain future in the wake of the Omicron scare, echoes a similar sentiment. “The West will never wake up to the fact that migrant workers, particularly South Asians, are treated like slaves. As long as Dubai is making the world’s biggest tower or the widest swimming pool – it’s all forgiven.”
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