Instances of bonded labour in the United Arab Emirates are in breach of international law proscribing slavery and its contemporary equivalents.
Evidence of the exploitation migrant workers suffer is manifest in the very first dealings they have with their prospective employers via the country’s indentured labour system. Under the Kafala (sponsorship) system of employment, UAE labour law stipulates that migrant workers may be issued entry and employment visas only if an Emirati national licensed by the Ministry of Labour sponsors them. As recipients of this sponsorship, migrants are prohibited from working for any employer other than their sponsors.
Given that such an exclusive contract binds workers to a single sponsor-employer—many of whom are reported to regularly withhold wages—this indentured labour system has been analogised to slavery. Migrant workers become indebted to recruitment agents for visa fees and are consequently forced to continue working for an indefinite period until they have settled these debts. As employers frequently withhold wages, migrants immediately fall into arrears and accrue further interest on their debts.
Under Article 1(a) of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, debt bondage is defined as follows:
"Debt bondage, that is to say, the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services ... as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined."
The state’s indentured labour system underpins this practice and thus represents an infringement of its obligations erga omnes (to the international community as a whole) under the Convention.