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Mariage et famille dans le Golfe aujourd’hui

The ”Khadama Dependency Syndrome”: Determinants and prospects for the future of domestic work demand in the United Arab Emirates

Froilan T. Malit, Jr., Mouawiya Al Awad et Kristian Alexander


Cet article examine les rôles et les représentations des travailleurs domestiques étrangers vivant aux Émirats arabes unis (EAU), ainsi que les implications de leur emploi sur les familles émiriennes locales. Au moyen d’entretiens approfondis avec 30 employeurs locaux des Émirats arabes unis, nous démontrons que la dépendance structurelle à l’égard des travailleurs domestiques (que nous appelons « khadama dependency syndrome ») s’intensifiera en raison de facteurs micro et macro-économiques complexes. Elle se transformera également en une dépendance à long terme, compte tenu de l'évolution des structures démographiques et familiales, dans un contexte de mondialisation rapide. Cette étude empirique interprète les perceptions des familles locales des EAU touchant aux caractéristiques de l'emploi des domestiques étrangers, et à ses effets complexes et multiples sur la société, la culture et l'économie des EAU. L’étude conceptualise aussi les effets globalisants de la dépendance structurelle de long terme à l'égard des travailleurs domestiques étrangers.

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The future demand for maids in the UAE is inevitable, and such labor demand is linked to disposable income by the local and expatriate families. If the number of locals in the public or private sector increases, the demand for maids in theory will increase. This also applies to expat families. (Ahmad, 35, Dubai)

UAE: Are we ready for a maid-less society? (Gulf News, 2014)

  • 1 Chan, 2005; Parennas, 2001; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Jureidini, 2017; Paul, 2017.
  • 2 Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Sabban, 2002, 2014.
  • 3 Halabi, 2008; Jureidini, 2017; Fernandez, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2014.
  • 4 Keanne & Mcgeehan, 2008; Shah, 2004; Vieger, 2012; Jureidini & Mourkabel, 2006; Jureidini, 2017; M (...)
  • 5 Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, 2014.
  • 6 Mahdavi, 2001; Parennas & Silvey, 2016.

1Contemporary ethnic and feminist scholars have examined extensively the complex nexus between the family and female domestic work1 and explored the social dynamic between the employer, domestic worker, and children2 and the transnational lives and conditions under which female domestic migrant workers struggle, cope, and operate in a global labor migration context. In the case of the Gulf countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – however, scholars have analyzed the linkages between family and female domestic work within the context of the Kafala Sponsorship System’s far-reaching control over foreign domestic workers.3 Other scholars have also investigated the negative effects of the Kafala Sponsorship System on foreign domestic workers' labor rights, on their mobility and working conditions,4 on debt bondage,5 slavery and human trafficking.6

  • 7 Roumani, 2005; Sabban, 2002, 2014.
  • 8 Roumani, 2005.
  • 9 Keenan & Mcgeehan, 2008; Human Rights Watch, 2014; Amnesty International, 2014.
  • 10 Local perceptions on migrant labor populations have been extensively examined in the Gulf; see, Di (...)

2In the UAE context, few scholars have investigated empirically the dynamic relationship between local families and foreign domestic work in the labor market,7 largely ignoring the effects of local families' structural dependency on foreign domestic workers. While the existing studies have primarily concentrated on the negative effects of foreign domestic workers on the childrearing practices of local families, on the children’s culture, identity, and language acquisition,8 others have focused on the labor and human rights of foreign domestic workers and their exploitation by local families.9 The problem with the family studies and migration literature, however, is that they often pay little attention to the complex determinants and implications of families’ dependency on foreign domestic workers across time and space in both local and global contexts.10 Thus, our article intends to focus on Emirati employers of foreign domestic workers to explore the future nexus between the local family and domestic work in the context of global migration.

  • 11 Between August and November 2017, we conducted in-depth interviews with 30 local employers in Duba (...)
  • 12 We conceptualize the khadama syndrome as the employers’ continual market demand and dependency for (...)

3Consequently, our paper examines the perceptions, determinants, and implications of future demand for foreign domestic work on the structure and status of local families in the UAE. Using 30 in-depth interviews with local employers 11 and existing government and secondary literature materials, we argue that the structural dependency on foreign domestic workers12 is not only likely to intensify due to complex macro and micro factors, but will also transform into a permanent feature in mainstream UAE society. The article is divided into five sections. The first analyzes the ‘dependency syndrome’ under the UAE’s Kafala Sponsorship System, explaining its historical and critical relevance in migration and family literature. The second section explores the contemporary UAE domestic work sector and explains the profile and conditions of hiring of migrant domestic workers. The third section conceptualizes the impact of globalization on local families, while the fourth section proposes macro- and micro-level determinant factors of the foreign domestic work sector. The final section concludes on the labor dependency and long-term policy implications for local families, as well as for sending and receiving countries.

The Khadama Dependency Syndrome under the Kafala Sponsorship System

  • 13 The Kafala Sponsorship Program is a loose state-sponsored guest worker program that regulates the (...)
  • 14 Nagy, 1998, p. 87; Kapiszewski, 1999.
  • 15 Hopper, 2015.

4In the UAE, the Kafala sponsorship system13 plays a central role in the lives of local families and acts as a state mechanism to control foreign domestic workers. Through the Kafala, the UAE government has legally been able to empower local families to govern and recruit large numbers of foreign domestic workers. Prior to the oil boom in the 1970s, the use of slaves was a common practice in the UAE and, to an extent, in other Gulf countries: “slaves were still used in the area for work in agriculture and pearling, while some slaves were also used to perform household labor”.14 Only a few affluent families (mostly merchants) could afford slaves or domestic workers to work within their households. In 1964, with strong pressure from the British government, the slave trade from East Africa to the UAE and other Gulf countries, which brought approximately 800,000 African slaves, was banned.15 This policy shift created more demand not only for locally based freed slaves and domestic workers, but also for workers from neighboring countries in the Gulf region. As Nagy (1998) acknowledges,

  • 16 Nagy, 1998, p. 88.

5Household workers were hired locally from amongst the freed slaves and others who migrated from neighboring areas, particularly from the northeastern shores of the Gulf. While the slaves were predominantly of East African origin, the early household workers recalled by my informants were most often identified as Iranian, Baluch or freed slave. Both the slaves and the early paid workers were most commonly Muslim and usually male.16

  • 17 Since there are no historical and official government data breakdowns on the domestic workers’ gen (...)
  • 18 Nagy, 1998.

6By the 1970s, with the new period of economic growth and the government redistribution of welfare services, local families were able to increase and enjoy their income, social packages, and subsidized government services, enabling them to hire more foreign domestic workers. At that time, the gender composition of domestic workers shifted to favor female workers,17 most of whom originated from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.18

  • 19 Localization initiatives like emiratization are state-led policies aimed to increase the employmen (...)
  • 20 Bergem, 2006; Longva, 1997.

7As the UAE government increasingly invested in education and localization initiatives 19 to increase the local workforce participation, many local women were also able to participate both in the public and private sectors, working in a variety of jobs from clerical positions to top-level managerial appointments. Many local families believe that employing migrant domestic workers gives them a certain level of social status among their peers20 and enables them to make their houses run more efficiently, while giving them more leisure time to enjoy their social lifestyle. Sabban (2014) reaffirms this dependency condition, acknowledging that

  • 21 De Leon, 2014.

8A woman alone cannot clean these big houses, care for the children, work, be presentable, and still attend social functions. She will need help. So it’s a chain of demand because of this new lifestyle. After almost 30 years of dependency on domestic workers, it’s going to be hard for UAE families [not to have them]. They could live without them eventually, but it’s going to create so many issues and problems.21

  • 22 Kapiszewski, 1999; Shah, 2004.
  • 23 Dubai Government and Dubai Women Establishment, 2012, p.4.
  • 24 Sabban, 2014.
  • 25 See De Leon, 2016.
  • 26 Statistics Center of Abu Dhabi, 2017.

9Thus, employing a foreign domestic worker within a local household brings real socioeconomic benefits and reflects a higher ‘social standing’ – a sign reflecting wealth and economic position in local society. In addition, the growing trend for local women to enter the labor force has greatly contributed to the rising demand for foreign domestic workers in the UAE.22 A government-commissioned study (2012) found that 58.9% of interviewees think that women, either single or married, should hold a job whether they have financial support or not.23 In the 1990s, the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization (MoHRE) (formerly known as the Ministry of Labor) estimated that there were on average 2.2 domestic workers per local family. However, in the 2010s, the average number of domestic workers per Emirati family has increased to 3.5, due to the growing disposable income and increasing female participation in the labor force, which both have the propensity to influence local family structure and lifestyles in the UAE. 24 Bennett and Coram (2009) revealed that 94% of 23,851 Emirati families surveyed in Dubai have nannies or maids, while only five percent of more than 144,000 expatriate families have nannies due to limited family sizes, budget constraints etc.25 By 2017, the UAE MoHRE acknowledged the presence of 750,000 foreign domestic workers, excluding undocumented domestic workers. By the end of 2016 in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, household workers of both genders constituted around 27.5% of all foreign workers in the Emirate, whereby 74.1% of all female workers (15 years and above) are classified as household workers.26

  • 27 Sabban, 2014, p.3.

10In addition, African domestic workers from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Nigeria have also migrated to the UAE (see Begum, 2014; Malit and Al Youha, 2016). Drawing from 500 surveys of Emirati families and their children, Sabban (2014) found that 93% of local UAE families have foreign domestic workers, while 63% of UAE family respondents believe that the “UAE family cannot survive without domestic workers.”27 While the UAE government does not impose quotas on local families seeking to employ foreign domestic workers, it exclusively prohibits single people from hiring foreign domestic workers, and issues employment visas only to selected government-approved nationalities. Therefore, the khadama dependency syndrome has become embedded in UAE families, reinforcing the imperative function of foreign domestic work in maintaining the family structure, functional efficiency, and cohesion in mainstream UAE society.

Contemporary Foreign Domestic Work

  • 28 The ILO Convention No. 189 defines domestic workers as “any person engaged in domestic work within (...)
  • 29 International Labor Organization, 2018.
  • 30 Under the current MOI policies, foreign domestic work cases are mainly addressed at the police sta (...)
  • 31 Gulf News Web Report, 2018.

11In the UAE, foreign domestic workers28 play a central role in the lives of local families, taking care of children day and night and performing various household chores. Their main functions often include “cleaning the house, cooking, washing and ironing clothes, taking care of children, or elderly or sick members of a family, gardening, guarding the house, driving for the family, and even taking care of household pets.”29 Legally governed by the UAE MoHRE labor laws, these domestic workers are typically classified into multiple categories, including live-in, live-out, freelance, as well as private company-recruited domestic workers. They are also administratively controlled under the 1973 Federal Law No (6) Concerning Immigration and Residence (UAE Ministry of Interior). Their access to legal justice (i.e. labor mediation, conciliation, and arbitration) and certain mobility rights have remained largely restricted.30 While the UAE's government has not set a minimum wage for all foreign workers, labor-sending countries have imposed minimum wage regulations on local employers, which have caused significant diplomatic tensions between states in recent decades.31

Table 1. Foreign Domestic Workers in the UAE (Nationality Breakdown)

Country Total Domestic Work Population (estimated) Minimum Wage Imposed by the Sending Country Accommodation and Food Requirements (paid by the employer) Status of Bana
The Philippines 100,000 AED 1,500 Yes Yes
India No estimate AED 1,100 Yes No
Indonesia 80,000 AED 1,200 Yes Yes
Ethiopia 100,000 AED 1,200 Yes No
Kenya No embassy estimates available No minimum wage provision Yes No
Nepal 10,000 AED 1,100 Yes No
Bangladesh 5,000-10,000 AED 900 Yes No
a. Status of ban refers to either sending or receiving country’s policy restrictions on deployment of foreign domestic workers in the UAE labor market.

Sources: Authors’ estimates drawn from official media-based reporting from Khaleej Times, the National, and Gulf News (2015–2016).

  • 32 For a middle-class family, the cost of hiring a foreign domestic worker often depends on their nat (...)

12As Table 1 suggests, some Asian and African labor-sending governments – acting through the agency of their embassies and consulates in the UAE — have legally mandated both national and expatriate family sponsors to pay a monthly minimum wage between AED 900 (US$ 245) and AED 1,500 (or US$ 400) per domestic worker, excluding living accommodation, transportation, food, health insurance and other required allowances (i.e. return ticket).32 As one local employer in Abu Dhabi asserts,

I have a Filipina khadama and I pay her more than US$ 400 and her salary goes up every year with her performance. My family buys her whatever we buy for our children and we even took her to our trips in Jordan and sometimes in Thailand with us, as part of our family. But, some employers sometimes, maybe cannot afford or do not pay workers based on what they deserve.
(Ali, 47, Abu Dhabi).

13More specifically, the Philippine government has set the highest monthly minimum wage rate of AED 1,500 per domestic worker, followed by the wages set by the governments of Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Nepal. Bangladesh has the lowest monthly minimum wage rate of AED 900. These competing monthly minimum wage rates have provoked strong opposition from local families and the UAE federal government and raised critical sovereign issues between sending and receiving countries because sending countries have unilaterally imposed minimum wage policies as protection mechanisms to ensure that their workers obtain decent living wages in the labor market.

  • 33 Al Ali, 2013.

14Local families often utilize live-in foreign domestic workers to address their household and caregiving responsibilities. In fact, live-in foreign domestic workers are preferred because national employers do not only govern and control their work and mobility functions, but also enable them to produce a highly efficient household system, where foreign domestic workers perform all household tasks. In addition, Emirati families maintain a tight cohesive unit that incorporates members of their extended families, and, increasingly, looking after their family members at home becomes the least expensive care option given the state’s neopatriarchy disengagement from social protection functions. For example, local employers have increasingly hired more live-in domestic or care workers to take care of the elderly (or those with long-term health problems).33

15Given the unique and perceived stereotypical characteristics of foreign domestic workers, local UAE families have also appeared to generate certain stereotypes to construct a hierarchy of demand for workers from different countries. For example, middle and high-income families strongly prefer Filipina domestic workers relative to other nationalities, which often stems from their ability to communicate in English, as well as their perceived cleanliness, level of education, and perceived sociability. As one local employer acknowledges,

I only hire Filipinas because they are great with children. They speak to my children in English and sometimes help them with their homework. They are very clean and focused on work, and it is very easy to communicate with them in general.
(Marwa, 40, Sharjah).

16Other middle to lower-income local families, however, prefer to hire foreign domestic workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka due to certain social and racial stereotypes in the domestic market. Some of the employers interviewed emphasized that “low-cost” foreign domestic workers, particularly from Bangladesh and Ethiopia, are attractive because of their unique household skills. One local employer acknowledges,

domestic workers have different characteristics and we hire based on these differences. For example, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshis have strength and they can work well outside and are good cooks, while we think Filipinas can do a good job taking care of children and house cleaning.
(Abdulrahman, 40, Dubai).

  • 34 Ankita, 2017.
  • 35 Al Nowais, 2014.
  • 36 Paul, 2017.

17Indian domestic workers are also employed by local families, but unlike other foreign domestic workers, these workers are almost exclusively hired by Indian expatriate families. While the preference for workers of different nationalities and religion varies, the cost of hiring and recruiting foreign domestic workers differs depending on the nationality, religion, and work experience of each worker. In the current domestic work sector, local employers pay UAE-based recruitment agencies between AED 20,000 and AED 30,000 to hire Filipina domestic workers, while others pay between AED 7,000 and AED 12,000 to hire a domestic worker from Bangladesh, Kenya, or Sri Lanka.34 In 2013, Filipina domestic workers were banned because the UAE government passed a circular note which instructed recruitment agencies to “rely on the new standard contract and [remove] the contracts of domestic workers ratified by the embassies of their countries of origin.”35 Despite the recent ban on Filipina domestic workers, local UAE employers have continued to hire Filipina workers on a tourist visa, later changing their immigration status to be employed in order to be hired legally by a local family. The local family’s varying preferences for Filipina over other foreign domestic workers is socially pervasive and has increasingly become a cultural norm within mainstream UAE society.36

Conceptualizing the Impact of Modernization and Globalization on Families

  • 37 Martell, 2010; Albrow & Pilkington,1990; Giddens, 1990.
  • 38 Held et al, 1999, p. 2.

18Since the end of the Cold War, globalization has increasingly shaped both developed (‘Global North’) and developing (‘Global South’) countries’ social, economic, political, and cultural development processes. While the competing definitions of globalization have become contentious among scholars,37 Held et al. (1999) conceptualize globalization as “the widening, deepening, and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life, cultural, financial, and spiritual.”38 This definition of globalization is relevant to the context of local UAE families and the foreign domestic work nexus as it broadly reflects the key dimensions of globalization, namely international migration and mobility, global cultural diffusion, and other economic interdependence.

  • 39 Dicken, 1992; Spich, 1995; Appadurai, 1990; Sassen, 2007.
  • 40 Hinnebusch, 2012; Wallerstein, 1974; Henry & Springborg, 2010; Peet & Hartwick, 2015; Scott, 1996; (...)

19Many scholars offer two competing perspectives on the complex roles and impact of globalization on countries’ economic growth and development. While some scholars have argued that globalization facilitates economic integration, technological growth, development, interconnectedness, global cultural diversity and integration through international migration,39 others view globalization negatively, highlighting its linkages with Western hegemonic ideologies, American/Western expansionism, capitalism, colonialism, and various sources of underdevelopment in developing countries in the Global South.40

  • 41 Abdulla, 2006, p.181.
  • 42 Kinninmont, 2015, p.21.
  • 43 Ibid.
  • 44 Ibid.
  • 45 Ibid.

20In the UAE and other Gulf countries’ contextual position as transitioning, (middle-income) countries, they have responded and adapted to some of the dynamic social and economic changes but not the cultural and political dimensions of globalization. This globalization force has played an important role in the UAE and Gulf region’s recent economic, social, and political developments. Since the 1950s, when the oil and gas industries were created, developed, and expanded, the Gulf countries “became integral global centers of economic and political power.”41 They intensified their global trade, communications, technological innovations and adaptions, as well as their global diplomatic approach, enabling them to manage, govern, and control open markets, free trade, privatization, and economic liberalization to accelerate economic growth and development. As Kinninmont (2015) acknowledges, “the GCC’s economic visions rely predominantly on the neoliberal perspective. This involves stabilizing supply-side policies such as deregulation to foster competition, liberalizing strategic sectors to attract foreign direct investment and privatizing state-owned enterprises to reduce inefficiency.”42 As globalization has become ubiquitous, the Gulf countries have developed “fairly positive attitudes about the ongoing process of globalization”; however, they further view political and cultural globalization as an “unwanted intrusion and a menace to deeply held values.”43 Yet, some scholars further assert that the Gulf countries understand that there is a “new historical juncture, a new world order, a new power relationship, new forces at work, and certainly new opportunities and unfamiliar challenges ahead of them in the contemporary 21st century.”44 Thus, the Gulf countries have “aimed to seize the future like the West,” as globalization has also subtly impacted the social, cultural, and economic dynamics of mainstream Gulf societies, particularly when it comes to family structure and traditions.45

21In the UAE, globalization has impacted the overall social, economic, and cultural dimensions of mainstream society. The UAE government has invested in new modern infrastructure, education, and health. Such macro level investments have created significant employment opportunities for the local population, specifically for women who are increasingly entering the labor markets. Local families have appeared to become structurally dependent on domestic workers needed to address their manpower shortage to perform household-related tasks and thus enable local women to enter the labor force. One could argue that these Asian labor-sending countries need capital (i.e. remittances) to accelerate economic growth and long-term development. The high level of dependency on foreign domestic worker of families in receiving countries has, in particular, perpetuated ongoing poverty and unemployment in developing (or labor-sending) countries that in turn provides an infinite supply of cheap labor as “currencies” to the UAE and other Gulf countries. Because of its capitalistic nature, the UAE state requires a massive supply of foreign manpower to address its industry labor shortages while simultaneously exerting its economic and political power in the form of foreign aid sanctions and favorable trade policies with developing labor-sending countries.

  • 46 Sabban, 2014, p. 21.

22While the structural dependencies of the UAE's local families and economy on foreign domestic workers provide some benefit to developing, labor-sending countries (i.e. remittances, reduction of unemployment rates), they also engender a centralized exploitative feature, conceptually characterized as a strong/developed state versus a weak/developing state (labor-sending countries). This power asymmetry not only creates an economically exploitative relationship (controlled by the UAE), but also produces long-term structural dependencies between weak/labor-sending and strong/labor-receiving states. Moreover, the daily private sphere interactions at the household level not only reinforce the integration of foreign domestic workers within local families’ cultures, but also reflect the globalized feature of labor migration from within. In fact, with the permeation of foreign domestic workers within local households, Sabban (2014) further asserts “UAE families […] are globalized from within, without having to move away globally. They have people with different cultures, languages, and ethnicities living in the same premises, and affecting families in all aspects of life.”46

23It is important to examine this South-South emphasis because the UAE plays a critical role in the ongoing socioeconomic development in developing countries in Asia and Africa. The UAE, in particular, establishes dependency-based relations with developing (labor-sending countries) given its dominant social, economic, and political leverage and their access to vital economic development resources (i.e., raw material, low-wage labor, trade). This diplomatic relationship has not only enhanced the UAE’s political control, but also has produced a profound structural dependency, where the uneven economic relationship between the UAE and the Global South will inevitably be unsustainable in the long run. Thus, the power asymmetry between the UAE and weak sending states clearly engenders a permanent dependency on foreign migrant labor in order to accelerate and adjust to globalization’s social, economic, and cultural developments.

Local Families in the United Arab Emirates: Views on the Macro and Micro Determinants of Foreign Domestic Work

Table 2. Mapping the Macro and Micro Determinants of Future Demand for Foreign Domestic Workers in the UAE.

Macro Factors Micro Factors
Receiving Country (UAE) Immigration ban Taxation Laissez faire approach on fees Declining government budget on public health expenditure Income Education and life expectancy Female labor market participation Social status
Sending Countries Legislative migration policies, including minimum wage, recruitment policy, and working conditions.

Macro Factors

24States have the strongest political and bureaucratic capacity to control, regulate, and manage the migration flows and costs of hiring foreign domestic workers within their national borders and beyond. This state arrangement has direct and indirect impacts on national family households, and significantly shapes their choices and integration engagements with migrant domestic workers.

Receiving Country

  • Immigration Bans and Restrictions
  • 47 The MOI permits 11 nationalities to obtain domestic work permits, including those workers from the (...)
  • 48 Gulf Business Staff Writer.
  • 49 Kannan, 2012.
  • 50 De Leon, 2014.

25Receiving states have, to a large extent, the strongest legal capacity to control, restrict, or liberalize their national immigration policies (i.e. work permit issuance) to address their unique labor market shortages. In the UAE, the federal government’s power to control the type of foreign domestic workers is often reflective of its domestic legislative framework and reforms. While the UAE has historically granted domestic work permits to many nationalities, UAE MoHRE policies restrict the issuance of domestic work permits to only 11 government-approved nationalities, significantly limiting Emirati families' choices and access to foreign domestic workers in a variety of countries.47 In addition to the legislative reforms, the UAE also exercises its federal policy capacity to impose labor bans on labor-sending countries and their domestic workers, depending on the perceived threats linked to the nationality in the labor market. Since 2012, the UAE MoHRE has imposed a five-year ban on Bangladeshi domestic workers from entering the UAE labor market due to perceived security threats, a move which impacted local employers who specifically prefer Bangladeshi domestic workers within their households.48 Similar to the ban it placed on Bangladeshi workers, the UAE federal government also imposed a ban on Ethiopian blue collar and domestic workers “until officials finalized the labor agreement to guarantee workers’ pay, working conditions, and employees’ rights.”49 In 2014, the UAE government imposed stricter restrictions on the Philippine government by requiring Philippine embassies or consulates not to intervene in the contract verification process for Filipina domestic workers.50

  • Taxation
  • 51 Kinninmont, 2015, p.23.

26Receiving states also have the legal and administrative power to impose fiscal policies, such as taxation on domestic workers to control and capitalize on the number and type of foreign domestic workers entering the local domestic market. Within the UAE's domestic work context, local UAE employers are currently mandated to pay AED 5,000 in deposit bonds to the UAE MOI in order to recruit foreign domestic workers from the 11 government-approved nationalities. As Kinninmont (2015) asserts, “Dubai serves as a unique example of a Gulf state that has embraced expatriates and turned them into a source of revenue for the government rather than a burden on its resources, as they are often seen in the region” (51).

  • The UAE Government’s Laissez Faire Approach

27Additionally, the UAE’s limited intervention (or their laissez faire approach) in regulating recruitment costs for hiring domestic workers could also impact the potential inflow of foreign domestic workers to the country. This is a critical macro determinant as the prevailing market recruitment fees for foreign domestic workers are legal and have the potential to impact both recruitment agencies and local family employers. Given the lack of government regulations to control the recruitment cost for foreign domestic workers—particularly in the context of labor/immigration ban— recruitment agencies will likely continue to capitalize by charging high recruitment fees to local families. This behavior is often rooted in the laissez faire approach, which results in higher fees administratively mandated, by local recruitment or placement agencies. The unregulated market pricing in the domestic work sector has also influenced other recruitment agencies to increase their recruitment fees for cheaper foreign domestic workers, particularly workers from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.

  • Public Expenditure on a Health Care Budget
  • 52 The persistent low-price of oil in the Gulf countries, particularly Abu Dhabi, UAE, has influenced (...)
  • 53 Ortiz, 2015.
  • 54 Zaman, 2016.
  • 55 The effect can be also negative: the higher medical expenditure decreases puts a pressure on famil (...)

28The public expenditure contraction on health care has the potential to affect future demand for foreign domestic workers.52 In the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Bosc (2016) found that 83% of the population in 11 MENA countries is likely to be affected by expenditure contractions by 2016–2018.53 In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi government recently changed its health insurance policy for the local population, mandating that employees pay 20% of health insurance costs at any private hospitals. While public hospitals have remained free for the local population, the new health insurance reform in Abu Dhabi requires the local population to cover 50% of fees at health care facilities outside of Abu Dhabi, except in cases where specialized treatment is not available in the emirate. Because of the recent reforms in health care insurance in Abu Dhabi, many local families have chosen to employ more live-in domestic or care workers as an alternative way to address the health care needs of their elderly family members.54 These homecare services for the elderly do not only serve as an important source of domestic labor demand in the context of rapidly aging societies, but also enable foreign care givers to help offset growing medical costs, in particular among low and middle-income Emirati families.55

Implications on the Receiving States’ Governance Approach Towards Domestic Work

  • 56 It is not clear what type of legal protection mechanisms will be afforded to migrant domestic work (...)

29Given the high demand for foreign domestic workers, combined with the strong pressure from international organizations and other labor and human rights institutions to reinforce UAE’s international obligations, political tensions are intensifying. In fact, the UAE federal government is in particular pressured by international Human Rights groups to reform the Kafala Sponsorship System – despite the strong opposition from the local populace – and address critical labor- market concerns pertaining to working conditions, mobility rights, passport confiscations, and access to justice.56 The result of this international pressure has been echoed in a report from the Khaleej Times:

  • 57 Salama, 2017.

The UAE is currently looking at a draft law to boost the rights of domestic workers. The rules protect domestic workers from discrimination and ensure they take a weekly day off, 30 days of annual paid leave and retain their personal documents.57

  • 58 Zakaria, 2017.
  • 59 Ibid.

30To address issues of illegal and unethical recruitment (i.e. excessive recruitment fees) effectively, the UAE Cabinet and MoHRE established a one-stop center for domestic workers in 2017.58 This system is intended not only to facilitate centralized recruitment, pre-arrival interviews, dispute resolutions, and checks upon housing and accommodation, but it also enables the state to capitalize on the new regulatory mandates governing private-sector companies (under the Tadbeer Center).59

The Impact of Sending Countries’ Policies on the UAE’s Labor Migration Flows

  • 60 Rodriguez, 2010; Guevarra, 2010.

31The political and legislative frameworks of sending countries also have the capacity to restrict or liberalize the migration outflows of domestic workers to destination countries because of the perceived risks, challenges, and labor market problems in regard to labor protection (i.e. minimum wage laws), labor rights, recruitment, and working conditions.60

  • Minimum Wage Requirement
  • 61 Anwar, 2017.

32Like receiving countries, sending countries also have the administrative and legal power to impose deployment bans on their domestic workers seeking temporary employment in the UAE. As a top sender of foreign domestic workers, the Philippines imposes protective bans on receiving countries for failing to meet their monthly minimum wage requirement. The Philippines and the UAE often face diplomatic disagreement because the UAE imposes a no minimum wage policy, which directly violates Philippine law. Because of this diplomatic tension, a diplomatic ban has been imposed on the deployment of domestic workers to the UAE since 2013, which has contributed significantly to the rise of human trafficking in the UAE. It has also had significant effects on the size of the domestic work sector, its composition, and type of jobs. Similarly, the Indonesian government has also imposed a deployment ban on the UAE, citing labor and employment problems such as non-payment of salaries, bad working conditions, long working hours and other abuses.61 As one Indonesian senior official acknowledges,

  • 62 Ibid.

We discourage our women from traveling overseas for housemaid jobs. They [recruitment agencies] bring them on a tourist visa or a cleaner’s visa. Once they are here, they are forced to work as housemaids. It’s a huge task to follow up with government departments, chase employers, recruitment agencies, follow court cases and eventually repatriate citizens.62

33Therefore, national protection mechanisms through labor deployment bans in sending countries have direct and significant effects on the composition and flows of the foreign domestic labor force, as well as the choices for local families in the UAE, GCC and other host countries.

  • Recruitment Policies
  • 63 Many foreign domestic workers were reportedly exploited by agencies in the country of origin that (...)
  • 64 Toumi, 2014.

34Sending countries’ government recruitment policy reforms also have a macro-determinant capacity to influence the domestic market’s size and composition. In the past, Filipino domestic workers were legally mandated by the Philippine government to pay a recruitment fee deducted by the agency from the workers' salary (in installments over up to three months), a state policy that has been removed due to reported exploitative practices by the agencies.63 Because the recruitment fee has been rescinded, the number of Filipina domestic workers has risen dramatically in the UAE and other foreign countries. Similarly, the Kenyan government imposed a ban on recruitment companies that recruit workers from Kenya to the Middle East region, including the UAE, citing various labor maltreatments and exploitations.64

  • International Pressure Related to Migrant Working Conditions

35The growing state pressure imposed by sending countries is directly linked to the international labor and human rights agendas of various civil society groups. In fact, international campaigns against labor malpractices and bad working conditions in the UAE have been launched by the International Labor Organization, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other labor rights consultancy firms that aim to push for better working and living conditions for all foreign migrant workers. While there is no data elucidating the impact that these global campaigns have on foreign domestic workers’ decisions to migrate to the UAE, the intense global campaigning has discouraged some domestic workers from seeking employment in, or from coming back to, the UAE and other Gulf countries for employment opportunities.65 In fact, some Filipina domestic workers have instead chosen to migrate to neighboring Asian countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan due to comparable, if not better wages, and close proximity to the Philippines (Malit and Naufal, 2018).

Micro Determinants of Future Domestic Work Demand

36In addition to macro-determinant factors, various micro-determinant factors, including but not limited to income, education, access to labor market participation, age / life expectancy, cost of living, and social status of local families, have the potential to transform the future demand for foreign domestic workers in the UAE.

Local Families’ Income Levels

  • 66 Haine, 2017.
  • 67 John, 2016.

37The rise of local families' income is a vital micro-determinant that has led to a greater demand for foreign domestic workers in the UAE. Because these local families have increased their income levels – which are often derived from government programs and policies (i.e. subsidies, localization programs in the labor market), many local families have appeared to increase their capacity to hire more domestic workers, given the heavily subsidized state assistance to local families. The growing participation of adult female Emirati nationals in the labor market – from 34% to 46% between 2000 and 2014 – increases their ability to afford hiring foreign domestic workers to address their household tasks.66 Moreover, the UAE government’s public services and generous social benefits have also added income to local households, which enable them to hire more migrant domestic workers. Additional government welfare benefits, free education, subsidies, a designated plot of land, and wedding funds are some of the benefits that have freed up disposable income. The UAE’s GDP – often used as a proxy for income – is well above the 95th percentile globally.67 A recent survey among Emirati families conducted by Sabban (2014), found that Emirati families have a monthly income of between US$ 4,087 and US$ 13,351. Of the 240 families sampled, 93% have domestic workers, and as one local employer in Dubai highlights,

locals can easily hire domestic workers because they have the disposable income to spend. If they can buy expensive branded bags like Chanel or Louis Vuitton, they can easily afford to get three or more maids to help them at home so they can socialize more outside. (Maryam, 36, Dubai).

38Therefore, the GDP per capita for UAE families further suggests that high incomes will increase local families’ ability to hire foreign domestic workers in the long run. This economic prediction, however, depends on the current economic and political stability of the UAE, and excludes any unforeseen circumstances like economic crises, inflation, taxation, and an increase in the cost of living. In fact, the wages offered to foreign domestic workers are significantly small relative to the estimated GDP per capita in the UAE.

Education and Labor Market Participation

  • 68 Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs, 2008.
  • 69 Dubai Government and Dubai Women Establishment, 2012.

39The growing links between educational attainment and labor market participation have become an important micro-determinant that will continue to drive the demand for foreign domestic workers. Emirati women, for example, account for 70% of university graduates in the UAE.68 As more local women become increasingly educated, they have increased their participation in the labor market. A study conducted by the Dubai Women's Establishment found that “66% of national women accounted for government workforce, of which 30% are in senior positions, 15% in technical jobs (medicine, nursing, pharmacy), and the rest in armed forces, customs and police, additionally they now account for 35% of the banking sector.”69 While the vast majority of local UAE women enter the labor force to increase their income, others view their participation in the labor force as a form of social empowerment. As a jointly commissioned study from the Dubai Government and the Dubai Women Establishment (2012:4) acknowledged:

Most Emirati women do not join the workforce seeking financial support, but more as a means for contentment and to have a productive role in the country’s development. But yet having a productive role in society is not limited only to joining the workforce. Many traditional tasks – for example as a mother—play an equally important role.

  • 70 Local firms which hire Emirati workers (including women) often enjoy discounted rates on work perm (...)

40This important trend has led to the growing demand for foreign domestic workers in the UAE, as more local families begin to hire more foreign domestic workers to help address their household functions (i.e. cleaning, cooking, driving, etc.). 70

Aging and the need for care labor

  • 71 CIA World Factbook, 2016.
  • 72 Shah et al., 2012.
  • 73 The National Staff, 2012.

41The aging process and the longer life expectancy of the local population is also an important micro-determinant. In 2010, the average life expectancy in the UAE was 74.06 years for both the men and women. However, with government investments in healthcare, education, and the labor market, this figure rose dramatically to 77.09 years in 2014.71 A study on foreign live-in domestic workers in Kuwait by Shah (2012) et al. found that “care by a domestic worker was approximately seven times more likely for women than men, about 10.8 times more likely for those without co-resident children compared with those who had three or more co-resident children, and 44 percent less likely for the poorest compared with the richest persons.” They further asserted that the “reliance on domestic workers is increasing and such reliance will remain necessary in the absence of culturally acceptable alternative institutional arrangements.”72 In the context of the UAE context, however, a growing segment of the elderly population resides with their children, while nursing homes or retirement homes are rarely an option due to the sociocultural norms in the UAE that discourage their use. These elderly people are often cared for by migrant domestic workers in family homes, and the demand for these workers will only increase as the number of elderly people and their needs grow. In 2010, the National73 reported that at least 40,000 elderly people (over 60) have been recorded to be residing in the UAE, while highlighting various government proposals to improve the country’s medical infrastructure by establishing homecare facilities and savings-fund provision for the elderly. This particular determinant and the availability of specialized foreign domestic workers to supplement the government’s provision of infrastructures for the care of the elderly, reinforces both family cohesion and the dependence on foreign domestic workers.


42This paper has examined the future roles and determinants of foreign domestic workers living in UAE society as well as their work implications on local Emirati families. While globalization has undeniably played a transformative role in local family culture, structure, and functions, the infinite supply of foreign domestic workers and their economic desperation to provide for their families, combined with the shortage of care workers for local UAE populations, will reinforce local UAE families’ structural dependency on foreign domestic workers. Although it is difficult to predict all of the implications the demand has on the sending and receiving states, on Emirati families, and on foreign domestic workers, we assert that the future demand of Emirati employers for foreign domestic workers will not only change in terms of population sizes, but also in terms of their demographic, gender, racial, and skills structures in the long run.

43Our paper offers four important conclusions. First, as more local UAE employers demand different nationalities (with different skill levels, talents, and experiences), more labor market competition between and among Asian and African domestic sending countries will occur. This particular market competition will both shift high bargaining power to UAE employers while posing significant challenges for foreign domestic workers’ rights in accessing labor protection in the host country. As more restrictive policing and policies are likely to be imposed on foreign domestic workers by sending states like the Philippines, local UAE employers will find it difficult to selectively access some domestic workers. Thus, domestic workers will also quite likely face more constraints in leaving their countries, an opportunity which transnational recruitment agencies can often exploit, given their complex global networks.

44Second, relative to other Gulf countries, there will continue to be a strong demand by local UAE employers for foreign domestic workers in the long run, which will highly likely facilitate more domestic work migration to the UAE, given the perceived openness, diverse expatriate populations and improved mobility and flexibility in immigration policies in the future. Given the uneven economic development between the UAE and other Asian labor-sending countries, it is therefore expected that local families will have more diverse and multiplied bargaining powers in selecting foreign domestic workers to work within their households. In essence, the structural dependency of local families will not only inevitably remain permanent, but also will require significant diplomatic negotiations in order to maintain the local family’s access to a cheap supply of foreign domestic workers from Asian and African countries.

45Third, given the demographic rise and shift and social trends and family structure in the UAE, local families are projected to require more foreign domestic workers to maintain local family lifestyle and enable the local female populations to participate in the labor market. While local UAE families will likely continue to have more disposable income to hire foreign domestic workers within their households, more African migrant domestic workers will become important substitutes for other predominant Asian migrant domestic workers in the long run.

46Fourth, local UAE employers will most likely seek authoritative state intervention in regulating and controlling the recruitment practices in the domestic work sector through more restrictive regulations and policy reforms (i.e. taxation, recruitment reforms, etc) to capitalize on the migration process of both foreign domestic and private sector workers. This predicted state practice, however, will quite likely affect local UAE families who will resort to more unofficial recruitment channels, which in turn will lead to more illegal immigration, trafficking, or tourist visa programs. Therefore, the khadama dependency of local UAE employers will continue to stabilize the social, economic, and cultural demands and positions of local UAE families, while subtly adjusting to the complex changes in local family structure and lifestyle in the immediate future.

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1 Chan, 2005; Parennas, 2001; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Jureidini, 2017; Paul, 2017.

2 Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Sabban, 2002, 2014.

3 Halabi, 2008; Jureidini, 2017; Fernandez, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2014.

4 Keanne & Mcgeehan, 2008; Shah, 2004; Vieger, 2012; Jureidini & Mourkabel, 2006; Jureidini, 2017; Malit & Naufal, 2016; Malit & Al Youha, 2016

5 Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, 2014.

6 Mahdavi, 2001; Parennas & Silvey, 2016.

7 Roumani, 2005; Sabban, 2002, 2014.

8 Roumani, 2005.

9 Keenan & Mcgeehan, 2008; Human Rights Watch, 2014; Amnesty International, 2014.

10 Local perceptions on migrant labor populations have been extensively examined in the Gulf; see, Diop et al, 2017.

11 Between August and November 2017, we conducted in-depth interviews with 30 local employers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi using a snowball sampling technique through phone and in-person interviews.

12 We conceptualize the khadama syndrome as the employers’ continual market demand and dependency for migrant domestic workers due to both to the labor manpower shortage and cultural resistance to enter into the local labor market.

13 The Kafala Sponsorship Program is a loose state-sponsored guest worker program that regulates the immigration, residency, and mobility rights of foreign domestic workers in the UAE. The main feature of the Kafala stems from its restrictive feature that governs the employer and employee relationships, a system which binds the domestic worker with their employers for a two-year renewable period. See Halabi (2008) and Longva (1997), p. 78-79.

14 Nagy, 1998, p. 87; Kapiszewski, 1999.

15 Hopper, 2015.

16 Nagy, 1998, p. 88.

17 Since there are no historical and official government data breakdowns on the domestic workers’ gender, nationality, and number, we instead rely on public estimates of domestic workers drawn from the MoHRE, MOI, and other Asian and African labor-sending countries.

18 Nagy, 1998.

19 Localization initiatives like emiratization are state-led policies aimed to increase the employment participation of local populations by mandating local firms to hire a certain percentage or quota within a given occupational sector. See Al-Waqfi & Forstenlechner, 2013.

20 Bergem, 2006; Longva, 1997.

21 De Leon, 2014.

22 Kapiszewski, 1999; Shah, 2004.

23 Dubai Government and Dubai Women Establishment, 2012, p.4.

24 Sabban, 2014.

25 See De Leon, 2016.

26 Statistics Center of Abu Dhabi, 2017.

27 Sabban, 2014, p.3.

28 The ILO Convention No. 189 defines domestic workers as “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship” thus domestic work is defined as “work performed in or for a household or households.”

29 International Labor Organization, 2018.

30 Under the current MOI policies, foreign domestic work cases are mainly addressed at the police stations’ mediation units, where the legal contract signed by the foreign domestic worker with the employer becomes the legal basis for any mediation verdict.

31 Gulf News Web Report, 2018.

32 For a middle-class family, the cost of hiring a foreign domestic worker often depends on their nationalities and work experience. The recruitment cost for Filipina domestic workers is approximately US$ 6,000, while other foreign domestic workers (i.e. Nepali, Kenyan) total US$ 4,000. The wage levels depend on whether a foreign domestic worker is currently a UAE-based or a newly arrived worker from her sending country. Thus, the affordability of a maid generally varies and is high among middle-income Emirati families.

33 Al Ali, 2013.

34 Ankita, 2017.

35 Al Nowais, 2014.

36 Paul, 2017.

37 Martell, 2010; Albrow & Pilkington,1990; Giddens, 1990.

38 Held et al, 1999, p. 2.

39 Dicken, 1992; Spich, 1995; Appadurai, 1990; Sassen, 2007.

40 Hinnebusch, 2012; Wallerstein, 1974; Henry & Springborg, 2010; Peet & Hartwick, 2015; Scott, 1996; Ulrichsen, 2015; Yo, 1990.

41 Abdulla, 2006, p.181.

42 Kinninmont, 2015, p.21.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Sabban, 2014, p. 21.

47 The MOI permits 11 nationalities to obtain domestic work permits, including those workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, India, Nepal, Vietnam (recent), Bangladesh and Indonesia.

48 Gulf Business Staff Writer.

49 Kannan, 2012.

50 De Leon, 2014.

51 Kinninmont, 2015, p.23.

52 The persistent low-price of oil in the Gulf countries, particularly Abu Dhabi, UAE, has influenced the UAE to reduce its public expenditure/subsidies on health care funds for its local populations.

53 Ortiz, 2015.

54 Zaman, 2016.

55 The effect can be also negative: the higher medical expenditure decreases puts a pressure on families to spend less on other services, including household service that results in hiring fewer maids.

56 It is not clear what type of legal protection mechanisms will be afforded to migrant domestic workers, given the limited public information.

57 Salama, 2017.

58 Zakaria, 2017.

59 Ibid.

60 Rodriguez, 2010; Guevarra, 2010.

61 Anwar, 2017.

62 Ibid.

63 Many foreign domestic workers were reportedly exploited by agencies in the country of origin that were charging excessive processing or placement fees prior to migrating to the UAE.

64 Toumi, 2014.

65 ibid.

66 Haine, 2017.

67 John, 2016.

68 Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs, 2008.

69 Dubai Government and Dubai Women Establishment, 2012.

70 Local firms which hire Emirati workers (including women) often enjoy discounted rates on work permit fees and other related government services. See UAE MOHRE, 2018.

71 CIA World Factbook, 2016.

72 Shah et al., 2012.

73 The National Staff, 2012.

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Référence électronique

Froilan T. Malit, Jr., Mouawiya Al Awad et Kristian Alexander, « The ”Khadama Dependency Syndrome”: Determinants and prospects for the future of domestic work demand in the United Arab Emirates »Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 10 | 2018, mis en ligne le 23 janvier 2019, consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Froilan T. Malit, Jr.

Associate, Gulf Labour Markets and Migration (GLMM) and Population Programme / Associate, Institute for Social and Economic Research, Zayed University / Fellow, Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders (CIFAL) Philippines

Mouawiya Al Awad

Director, Institute for Social and Economic Research, Zayed University

Kristian Alexander

Assistant Professor, Zayed University

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