Interview with a Migrant Worker in the United Arab Emirates: Agency and Mobility in the in-between

Clara Bicalho, Contributing Writer

Grace’s story: A portrait of an immigrant’s journey

When I first met Grace[1] she had been working in her new position for the past 18 months. During our first interview, I learned that she was in her thirties and a single mother of two kids, whom she had left back home upon immigrating to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2008. Before coming to work as a receptionist in an international bank branch, she had to quit her job as the head production supervisor in a wine company. Like many before her, she went overseas under the premise of better-paid opportunities in the oil-rich Gulf region. She said, “I had a lot of things I was dreaming about, and there was no way I could see them [happening] by staying at home. But when I came here things backfired.”

Transitioning to the UAE, as Grace explained, was not an easy process. Similar to other migrants from Asia and Africa, Grace arranged her travel plans through an agent that handled legal documents. This process cost her around 2900 US dollars (USD). Despite this significant financial investment, which promised to streamline her legality in the UAE, she still ended up returning home within the first few months to apply for a work permit in Abu Dhabi.  Upon her return, she was surprised to discover that she had been replaced as a receptionist. Under the same company, she was offered work in a cleaning position. Having already incurred her family a great financial debt, Grace said “there was no way I was going to stay at home, because people would see me there and they would want their money back.” So Grace accepted the offer and returned to the UAE, in spite of the fact that the wage was only 500 dirhams (AED), the rough equivalent of 136 USD per month.

During the first year and a half in the UAE, she lived in a women’s labor camp. These compounds for migrant workers are often far from most residential and commercial areas of the city. There she encountered many laborers who had turned to substance abuse or had gotten involved with prostitution to supplement their low wages. During that period, her earnings were insufficient to spare her a trip back home.

Her circumstances, however, improved considerably once she started working under the aegis of an institution that safeguarded her rights in 2011. Her wages increased, and she was again in possession of her passport, which previous employers had illegally withheld. She observed that, while working in another establishment under the same cleaning company, in her original job, her wage was reduced to a bare minimum, while at her current workplace “they follow up on how much [workers] get and [their] living conditions.”

While supporting her family financially, Grace gathered enough money to enroll in an online course on Executive Housekeeping. She narrates, “I know a bit about chemicals. So now I want study to know how to budget for companies, to learn about chemicals, and pest control, so I can go to the next level.” By using the knowledge she has gained through her many experiences, Grace hopes to advance herself in the UAE labor market. Nevertheless, her prospect for a farther future persist: “to provide a good education to [her] kids, and to be a motivator to girls from the slums back home who think prostitution is the only alternative to a living.”

Working under the Kafala system: Grace’s experiences in a larger perspective

Grace’s migration story presents many similarities to the labor experiences studied by anthropologists Andrew Gardner and Neha Vora on Indian migrant workers in Bahrain, and the Indian middle-class in Dubai, respectively. These ethnographic works explore the scenario of transnational workers and their assimilation into the kafala system predominant in Gulf countries. This system regulates the employment and residency of migrant workers, and requires migrants to have a local sponsor, known as the kafeel, who is legally responsible for the migrant’s visa and stay in the country.

Both Gardner and Vora discuss the many conundrums workers face when migrating to Gulf nations, as well as the workers’ experience of the idiosyncratic social structure of which they become a part of upon arrival. Grace’s personal motivations for migrating and her experiences within the labor market are comparable to existing literature. However, her accounts also shine new light over notions of structural violence and current class denominations within works describing migration in the Gulf.

In his studies of migrant workers in Bahrain, Gardner suggests that there are two main classes among the population of migrants in the island: the “transnational proletariat,” composed of manual laborers or low level clerks, primarily of Indian origin, and the “diasporic elite,” constituted of educated and skilled middle class laborers, all of which experience structural violence through the kafala system in Bahrain.[2]

The transnational proletariat, according to Gardner, faces the political threat of illegality and consequent deportation because they often surrender their passports when arriving in Bahrain. As a consequence, they are physically and legally bound to a job and sponsor until their term has ended. Additionally, economic hardship and the barrier of language often put them at a disadvantage.

In spite of the existing parallel between Grace’s experiences and literary accounts, she does not fit seamlessly into either of the class categories indicated by Gardner. Although she faced hardships similar to the transnational proletariat, her current condition allow her both physical and professional mobility, qualities characteristic of the diasporic elite. Notwithstanding socioeconomic constraints, her accounts suggest that some laborers demonstrate a greater sense of mobility and choice over their professional and personal lives while living in the UAE.

The incongruences between professional qualification and position occupied by transnational workers like Grace also raise concerns. As Neha Vora observes in her ethnography of Indian middle-class migrants in Dubai, migrants are not payed based upon their education or their skill set, but rather “based on their passports, their accents, and their skin color.”[3] Grace reaffirms Vora’s observations through her professional relegation upon coming to the UAE.

In light of Grace’s experiences, as well as those reported by anthropologists, the argument that passports are “less attestations of citizenship than of claims to participation of labor markets”[4] becomes particularly pertinent to the study of labor migrations within the Gulf. It highlights the existence of a global class system, determined almost completely by the citizenry habitus; labor positions and social class are often contingent on the country of citizenship.


Grace clearly lies in between the cracks of class denominations assigned to migrants by Gardner. She is neither characterized by the lack of agency of transnational proletariat, nor the relatively privileged state of the diasporic elite. On one hand, her experience authenticates issues explored by Gardner and Vora, such as the migrant’s financial motivations for leaving home, their disappointment upon arrival, and their hardships under the kafala system. On the other hand, her personal account expounds a need for reinterpreting notions of mobility, especially among over-qualified workers, within the social structure of the UAE.

Grace’s story highlights additional factors that influence workers’ experiences under the labor system, such as their access to continued education, and the role of employers in shaping immigration experiences through wage protection and check-mechanisms. While far from predominant, these elements are shown to significantly affect the quality of living, as well as professional prospects of migrants with lower socio-economic status in the UAE.

[1] In order to protect the anonymity of the interviewee, names of persons and institutions concerned in this article were omitted or altered.

[2] Gardner, Andrew. City of Strangers: Gulf migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain. Ithaca : ILR Press, 2010. Print.

[3] Vora, Neha “Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle Class Migrants in Dubai,” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2008), 61-90, 377- 406.

[4] Anderson, Benedict. Exodus. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Winter, 1994). Print. 314-327.

Clara Bicalho an NYU Abu Dhabi student, class of 2016.


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