April 17, 2014

Coerced Victims or Exploited Workers?: Prabha Kotiswaran reviews Pardis Mahdavi’s new book Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai

Mahdavi’s book Gridlock offers a fascinating report of the negative consequences in the Middle-East, specifically in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Dubai as a result of the impact of the UN Trafficking Protocol[i] and the U.S. anti-trafficking law[ii]. Mahdavi focuses an invisible group of the Emirates’ inhabitants, namely, its migrant workers, ranging from domestic workers, cab-drivers and male construction workers to beauticians working in malls and sex workers. She undertakes an ethnographic study of these several groups of migrant workers to offer a powerful critique of the current paradigm of international anti-trafficking law and its implementation in Dubai arguing that they hurt the very people they seek to protect. Mahdavi claims that contemporary anti-trafficking discourse has been inordinately preoccupied with the increased criminalization of sex work. She instead successfully argues for reframing trafficking as an international migration and human rights issue.

In the introduction to Gridlock, Mahdavi asserts that the dialogue about trafficking itself has been trafficked (p. 11). In particular, the term trafficking is used in definitional and policy terms to primarily connote women, often young, who have been duped or forced into sex work (p. 13) —  even though the international legal definition in the UN Protocol refers to any worker who is recruited or transported through means such as force, fraud, or coercion for purposes of exploitation.

Consequently, the exploitative conditions under which a large percentage of Dubai’s migrant non-sex worker population labors is not considered seriously. All sex workers on the other hand are considered to be trafficked (p. 62). This has been reinforced by US influence on trafficking discourse, particularly, the US TIP Report for Dubai which certainly prior to 2009 focused on sex trafficking. This is compounded by the fact that political and social actors in the UAE experience the TIP report as an instance of US imperialism and hegemony and more generally as a tool of US trade and foreign policy. Their suspicion is justifiable considering that Dubai has occupied literally every place in the TIP report rankings from Tier 1 (2003) to Tier 3 (2001, 2002) and Tier Two and the Tier Two Watch List in other years (pp. 19, 21, 25).

In the ensuing chapters, Mahdavi is keen to show that there are women in the sex industry who have not been trafficked and that there are many instances of abuse inflicted on both men and women outside the sex industry. Thus chapters 3, 4 and 5 of her books are focused on specific labor markets in Dubai.

Chapter 3 on Sex work for instance demonstrates what global research on sex work typically reveals, namely, the diversity of the sex industry. The situation is even more complicated in a state like Dubai where 92% of its population consists of migrants and where the city is divided and constructed along the lines of gender, race and citizenship. Hence, Dubai’s sex industry is segmented into the high-end group of Iranian sex workers who operate collectively and without pimps in the plush newer condo developments of South Dubai, while South East Asian and South Asian sex workers are in the city’s bars and African sex workers are on the streets of North Dubai.

Mahdavi is at pains to show how these sex workers cannot be easily characterised solely as victims or agents and that for them both force and choice co-exist (p. 63) and lie along a continuum —  so the motivations to enter sex work are several and complex. Any attempt to ignore this reality and dictate that all sex workers are ‘victims’ translates into rescue operations, which go against sex workers’ wishes. More significantly, it leads to the provision of social services to sex workers in Dubai along racial lines as street-based sex workers have greater access to services when compared to sex workers working in relatively safer indoor environments.

Related to the chapter on sex work is Chapter 5 on female migrant workers engaged in domestic work. Here Mahdavi demonstrates that women who can legally enter the formal economy of domestic work often choose to enter the informal illegal space of sex work for the relative autonomy and higher pay that it offers. They prefer sex work to the highly exploitative working conditions and the absence of labor rights they face as domestic workers. When domestic workers are deceived about their hours of work, their visa status and their pay, which is not paid for months on end, they run away from their employers – this renders their immigration status illegal. Hence moving into sex work very quickly becomes a “deliberate well-reasoned act of income generation” (p. 141). The most significant insights here for those who advocate against sex trafficking according to Mahdavi is that many women enter sex work through legal migration channels and from jobs in the formal economy.

Having thus exploded certain myths around sex work and sex trafficking, Chapters 4 and 7 of Mahdavi’s book offer a poignant account of the appalling working and living conditions of migrant laborers in other sectors in Dubai.  They arrive on fake visas and pay exorbitant fees to recruitment agencies. They are tied to their employers by the kefala system, which prevents them from changing jobs.  This system undermines their bargaining power, forces them to live in squalid living conditions and work even when seriously injured. It often results in unpaid salaries and, even when paid, wages are well below what was agreed to. These serious abuses are further compounded by high penalties for living illegally in Dubai. So for some migrants, exit to their home country becomes practically impossible as the authorities would detect their illegal status upon departure. Thus Mahdavi points to the “discrepancy between imagined ideas about trafficking and the actual realities of forced labor and migration.”

Based on Mahdavi’s account so far, one might look to the space of civil society for addressing the serious rights infractions of migrant workers in Dubai. Except that the UAE formally prohibits the formation of labor unions. As a result, organisations that have been set up to support migrant workers lead a precarious legal existence. They are hampered by the inability to raise funds, scale up their operations or vocally advocate for workers’ rights.

It is this fragile space of civil society according to Mahdavi that has suffered the most from the politicisation of the trafficking issue and the mandate of the 2009 TIP report to the UAE to step up law enforcement efforts against trafficking, increase raids and arrests against sex trafficking and tighten borders (p. 213). These TIP recommendations according to Mahdavi led Dubai to import law enforcement personnel and dramatically increased the surveillance of female migrant workers. Further by reiterating the received US notion that countries in the Middle-East have no civil society, the efforts of existing groups amongst migrant workers were rendered invisible. Worse, of the four migrant workers’ organisations that Mahdavi chronicles, two were shut down by the government for harbouring illegal migrant women and ‘running a brothel’ while one other group decided to direct its efforts towards male migrants.

In conclusion, Mahdavi deploys her ethnography of migrant labor markets in Dubai to powerfully situate trafficking at the crossroads of complex macro-social forces operational in both sending and receiving countries – the structural realities of the migration process (such as the kefala system, the lack of the recognition of domestic work and sex work as forms of labor) and the powerful grip of the anti-trafficking discourse which renders abuse in non-sex work sectors invisible, while ‘fetishizing victimisation’ in the sex industry.

Despite the global moral panic that animates contemporary efforts against trafficking, Mahdavi is confident that the trafficking framework could potentially be used as a catalyst to improve migrant workers’ human rights. But for this to occur, the selective focus on sex work will need to be broadened to include all forms of labor and a greater emphasis will need to be placed on conditions that exist at the end of the migratory process rather than solely on consent to entry into a labor market. A systemic reform of the kefala system to allow for worker rights will be essential as well as better training of police personnel, an increase in the numbers of labor inspectors and the recognition of the legal status of NGOs supporting workers. Thus, it is by only by understanding trafficking as migration gone wrong (p. 12), can we address the ‘gridlock’ of contemporary anti-trafficking policy.

Prabha Kotiswaran is a Lecturer in Law at the School of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies. Her areas of research include feminist legal theory, law and society in South Asia and sociology of law, especially an economic sociology of law. She is most recently the author of Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India, published by Princeton University Press (2011) and editor of a reader on Sex Work published by Women Unlimited (2011) for a Series on Issues in Contemporary Indian Feminism. Her email is pk5@soas.ac.uk


[i] 2000 UN Protocol on Trafficking which supplements the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime.

[ii] The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Under this law, the US State Department issues an annual report called the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report ranking national governments based on their actions against trafficking through the prosecution of traffickers, prevention of trafficking and the protection of trafficked victims.

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