Labour housing: The "UAE model"

After a riot in Singapore's Little India this month, spotlight is on migrant labour woes in the city-state and whether to house them on offshore islands

Courtesy: Google Maps

Courtesy: Google Maps

With the government claiming that there is “no evidence that unhappiness among foreign workers led to Little India riot”, and the civil society activists claiming otherwise, the onus is now on the Committee of Inquiry appointed by the home affairs ministry to establish the factors and circumstances that led to the riot.    

But as a knee-jerk reaction, few people have argued whether housing foreign workers on offshore islands will be a good idea, similar to what is practised by UAE in its Saadiyat Island. To be sure, the government has already indicated that it is “open” to such an idea.  

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in a written reply in Parliament early this year had said, “We are open to such an idea of housing some foreign workers at nearby offshore islands. We have in fact housed workers on Jurong Island and Pulau Brani, at different times, scales and duration. However, not all offshore islands are suitable, due to the availability of supporting infrastructure such as sewers, as well as other planning considerations. But we will continue to look for suitable opportunities to help us house the foreign workers properly and without causing too much inconvenience to them or to Singaporeans.”

Few such as Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, a businessman who provides dormitories for foreign workers, have already come up with the concept of “floating dorm”. In an interview to the Strait Times, Jaleel discussed the concept, which he claimed can house 7 to 8,000 workers in a ten-storey structure.   

Saadiyat Island

Courtesy: Google Maps

Courtesy: Google Maps

But what exactly is the “UAE model” and how are the conditions of foreign workers living there in such kinds of offshore islands? [Saadiyat Island has a Saadiyat Construction Village housing thousands of migrant workers]

Not very good, if various media and international agencies reports are to be believed.  

An Aljazeera report in May this year, quoted Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, as saying that these workers are "effectively living in 21st-century slave states".

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2012 report said, “According to the latest statistics, foreigners account for more than 88.5 percent of UAE residents, many of them poor migrant workers. Immigration sponsorship laws grant employers extraordinary power over the lives of these workers. They have no right to organize or bargain collectively and face penalties for going on strike. Although the law calls for a minimum wage, the Ministry of Labour has yet to implement it. Across the country, abuses include unsafe work environments, the withholding of travel documents, and low and non-payment of wages, despite a mandatory electronic payment system introduced in 2009.”

Out of the total migrant labour in the UAE, 1.75 million are Indians, 1.25 million Pakistanis, 500,000 Bangladeshi; 1 million other Asians; and 500,000 Europeans and Africans.

The Emirates Centre for Human Rights (ECHR) details the migrant workers woes even further.  

The most extreme nature of exploitation is the result of the Kafala sponsorship programme, which allocates disproportionate power to sponsors and employers in determining the legal residence of workers. In effect, employers are given almost total control over migrant workers’ pay, living conditions, nutrition, capacity to change employment, and their ability to return home,” ECHR said.

Other big concerns are debt bondage and confiscation of passports. “Workers on arrival find themselves indebted to employers with wages too low (between US$175 and $220 a month) to manage re-payments. 6 Forced labour is also the result of employers withholding labourers’ passports, whereby workers choosing to leave their employers risk illegal residency status. Consequently, workers are tied to their employers and the harsh working environments they impose,” informed ECHR.  

Additionally, harsh working environment with very few breaks, prohibition of labour union activity or other legal mechanisms for redressing labour conflicts, as well as restriction of free movement, have led to suicides becoming increasingly common among the low-income migrant workers, according to the International Labour Force.  


Civil unrest and wider health implications due to overcrowded and unhygienic living arrangements are obvious implications. There were reports of mass brawl at Saadiyat Island in August when rival groups of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers clashed, armed with hammers, knives and metal bars. At a similar “labour camp” in Dubai, thousands of workers staged a four-day strike in May seeking higher pay and free food.

The UAE government, on its part, has responded to the bad publicity it has got for treatment of migrant workers, and initiated few changes in 2012. 

These include establishing telephone hotline through which employees can report abuse, and hiring United Kingdom construction firm Mott MacDonald and international auditing firm, PwC, to monitor workers’ conditions in Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island. 

The Abu Dhabi Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has also amended its Employment Practices Policy to require contractors to reimburse their employees for any recruitment costs or fees associated with their employment on Saadiyat Island. 

This followed new labour regulations issued by the UAE government, which explicitly prohibit UAE recruitment agencies from imposing recruitment fees on workers or intermediaries. The regulations also hold recruitment agencies partly liable if they place the worker with an employer who subsequently does not pay the workers, and ban recruiters from placing workers with companies involved in collective labour disputes. Recruiters will have to put down a US$81,000 minimum deposit, which will be available to pay workers’ salaries if the company fails to do so. Additionally, agencies must pay US$540 per worker for insurance.

Whether these measures actually translates into improving migrant labour woes in the UAE remains to be seen.