Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai / Edition 1

Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai / Edition 1

by Pardis Mahdavi
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Stanford University Press


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Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai / Edition 1

The images of human trafficking are all too often reduced to media tales of helpless young women taken by heavily accented, dark-skinned captors—but the reality is a far cry from this stereotype. In the Middle East, Dubai has been accused of being a hotbed of trafficking. Pardis Mahdavi, however, draws a more complicated and more personal picture of this city filled with migrants. Not all migrant workers are trapped, tricked, and abused. Like anyone else, they make choices to better their lives, though the risk of ending up in bad situations is high.
Legislators hoping to combat human trafficking focus heavily on women and sex work, but there is real potential for abuse of both male and female migrants in a variety of areas of employment—whether on the street, in a field, at a restaurant, or at someone's house. Gridlock explores how migrants' actual experiences in Dubai contrast with the typical discussions—and global moral panic—about human trafficking.
Mahdavi powerfully contrasts migrants' own stories with interviews with U.S. policy makers, revealing the gaping disconnect between policies on human trafficking and the realities of forced labor and migration in the Persian Gulf. To work toward solving this global problem, we need to be honest about what trafficking is—and is not—and to finally get past the stereotypes about trafficked persons so we can really understand the challenges migrant workers are living through every day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804772204
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/13/2011
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 708,169
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Copyright © 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7220-4

Chapter One


AT THE HEART OF THIS BOOK lies a question: How do popular discourses and policies about human trafficking and migration, hammered out in EuroAmerica (principally Washington D.C.), reflect and impact life in countries with different political and social topographies? Using qualitatively based, on-the-ground research in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among the largest migrant-receiving countries in the world today, this work examines the uneasy marriage of policy, paradigms, and reality; namely, how policies conceived elsewhere affect the lived experience of migration, forced labor, and trafficking. Dialogue about human trafficking has itself been "trafficked" or taken over by innumerous policymakers, advocates, and lobbyists, and the resulting implementation of policies and laws on trafficking inevitably shortchanges the intended beneficiaries: persons undergoing situations of abuse or rights violations. Thus examining migrants' experiences is vital for understanding how policies on trafficking, designed to reduce abuse and rights violations, have in their implementation had just the opposite effect on the lives of many migrants in the Gulf. Once we grasp the contrast between policy/ discourse and lived experience, policies that truly serve to protect the rights of migrant workers can be designed and more effectively implemented.

Added to the question of policy is the question of discourse: How do global conversations about trafficking (and media and journalistic representations such as Taken or MTV's EXIT program) create an image of the experiences of migration, forced labor, and sex work in the minds of the public? How do these global stereotypes and caricatures affect policy at the global and local levels in places such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi? And in turn, how do these policies, as well as the global conversations informing them, affect the lives of migrants and trafficked persons? If we look at trafficking as an issue of migration or labor gone awry, we can see the need to frame the concept within the conversations about migration and forced labor. Moreover, it is time to move away from the criminalization framework of current policies and toward reconceptualizing trafficking as a human rights issue.

Given the ways in which trafficking and migration in the Gulf have been castigated in recent policy and discourse, the UAE provides an ideal spot for studying the contrasts between discourse and experience. Between 2004 and 2009 I made several extended trips to the UAE to interview men and women working in various service industries such as domestic work, construction work, and sex work, who came from such diverse places as the Philippines, Iran, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. I also spent several months interviewing government officials in the UAE about labor, migration, and trafficking policies as well as members of the U.S. State department involved in trafficking policy. Overall, I interviewed 60 migrant workers, 30 social service providers, and 20 policymakers, bringing my interviewee total to 110. The research was conducted primarily over the course of four summers, and I was fortunate to benefit from the assistance of three students from the Claremont Colleges (where I teach) throughout my time in the field. One student in particular, Christine (Chris) Sargent (introduced in the Prologue), assisted me throughout the project, accompanying me to several interviews in the field and helping with research and analysis when we returned to the United States. When the term "we" is used throughout the text, I am referring to interviews and experiences shared with Chris.

Sarah Burgess and Abby DiCarlo provided administrative and occasional research assistance in the field. Our research team, consisting of myself and these three students, employed anthropological research methods of participant observation (immersion in a field setting to observe the population of interest) and in-depth interviews with migrant workers, informal service providers, and officials working on forced labor and migration issues in the UAE. For the sake of confidentiality I have changed the names of all the interviewees in this book. In general, I have retained institutional names in order to reflect interviewees' desires to provide exposure of their organizations' work. Throughout the book I draw on the experiences of my interviewees, not to generalize from my small sample, but rather to show examples of lived experience and examine the disconnect between migrant narratives and policies written about them. I do not mean to imply that all migrant workers undergo the same challenges, nor do I believe that my small sample of activists is representative of all who are involved in building civil society or establishing policy. This sample, gathered over the course of my fieldwork, is comprised of migrant workers, activists, and policymakers I engaged with in the field. While not comprehensive or representative, I believe that these narratives show important disconnects in our understandings of forced labor, migration, and "human trafficking."

* * *

Throughout my fieldwork, and also in my review of policy documents, I observed that policymakers, activists, and opinion leaders place various labels on certain migrant groups, labels that are often not only inaccurate and arbitrary but also gendered, raced, classed, and sexualized. For example, the word trafficked, a contested term that at once claims too much and too little, has grown (in popular discourse) to refer to the experience of all women who migrate primarily into the sex industry. The legal definition refers to abuse characterized by the elements of force, fraud, and/or coercion. Though it stems from a desire to protect the rights of human beings from abuse and exploitation, the discourse around human trafficking in the U. S. that has been constructed through the lens of activism and media sensationalism tends to refer only to women migrating into sex work, while excluding women and men outside the sex industry. The misconception is thus perpetuated that human trafficking refers primarily to a woman, often young, who has been duped or forced into sex work. This construction of trafficking that hinges primarily on the sex industry has shaped the implementation of policies (at least in the UAE) over the past decade. The current disconnect—between the broad legal definition that embraces any worker who experiences force, fraud, or coercion, and the narrow latitude of activist and policy discussions that focuses on sex work—offers uncomfortable insight into how gender and sexuality permeate popular understandings of victimhood, vulnerability, and power.

While the term trafficked is mistakenly used mostly to refer to women, usually in the sex industry, migrant, especially in the Gulf, has a masculine and class-based connotation. In the UAE it refers typically to unskilled, low-wage male workers, as does laborer. Unskilled female workers are referred to as housemaids (khaddamah) or nannies, or simply as "the help," even though they work in a wide range of industries beyond domestic and care work. Interestingly, migrant workers of Western backgrounds in the UAE are exclusively referred to as expatriates. Thus migrant, laborer, and trafficked tend to be loaded, gendered terms applied to unskilled or semi-skilled workers, while expat implies highly skilled, Western guest workers in the Gulf and can be applied to both genders of a certain class and of certain countries of origin.

While doing my fieldwork, and even in presenting the results of my research when I returned, I was struck repeatedly by the desire of audience members, policymakers, and persons I encountered in the UAE to place my interviewees into these artificially reified categories. The conflation of these terms, both in policy and discourse, has made me increasingly uncomfortable. This tension is even more frustrating because in order to deconstruct and untangle the terms I am critical of, I must invoke these same labels and phrases in my work.

A Note on Agency and Discourse

In presenting the stories and lived experiences of the migrant workers that form the basis of this study, throughout the book I draw on a series of concepts, debates and policy recommendations. A closer look at the labels and mislabeling arising from these concepts, as well as at the conceptual umbrella itself, follows.

I use the concept of agency throughout the text to refer to an individual's capacity, desire, and potential to make choices and decisions about his or her own life, trajectories, and future. Agency is the ability to act as an individual and to determine one's own fate. It is often thought to be limited by the concept of structure, the term used to refer to institutions or conditions that might support or restrict agency. Structures can include systems such as education, employment sector, and state regulations, or socially constructed categories such as class, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and group identity. Individuals often find and exercise agency even within the structures that seek to limit them.

Throughout the book I use migrants' stories and show how migrants find pockets of agency in situations of oppression and repression. I draw on the concept of agency in order to move beyond the traditional view of migrant workers as victims solely of their circumstances, to point to the deliberate choices they make as enterprising and courageous persons seeking to make a better life for themselves and their families, to move into one industry or another, and to leave their home country in search of work in the UAE.

The concept of agency is also particularly useful in talking about and understanding the nature of sex work. I opt to use the term sex work to recognize the agency of persons involved in this industry, specifically those who view sex work as a job (rather than a defining identity). In defining sex work, it is useful to look to the United Nations' definition embedded in the language of the report from the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW):

The term "sex work" or "commercial sex work" is generally understood to include a wide range of behaviors and venues, and includes, but is not limited to, street prostitution, brothel prostitution, exotic dancing, paid domination, and sexual massage. Many people who engage in sex work or commercial sex identify what they do as sex work, but it is also important to acknowledge that many other people who engage in informal and occasional sexual transactions may not incorporate this experience as an important part of their personal identity.

Use of the term sex work thus attempts to situate the industry within a framework of labor so that those involved in it can access the rights and protections afforded to other laborers. It also acknowledges the agency of sex workers, recognizing that not all persons engaging in sex work are victims or have been tricked or trafficked into this type of work.

I have also relied heavily on the concept of discourse. Discourse, in the Foucaultian tradition, refers to the production of conversations, ideas, language, and the way of talking about a subject that becomes regularized or institutionalized through repeated use. People often use this term to refer to socially agreed-upon or mainstream imaginings of an issue. By default, because discourse is defined as the majority viewpoint, other views that may not fit within the dominant version of the conversation may be excluded. The constructed nature of discourse must be underscored. Discourses can become paradigms, reflective of a certain moment that defines the mainstream. The concept is particularly useful for reminding us that dominant versions of an issue are not always the unobstructed truth. In the following pages, I use the concept of discourse to refer to the dominant paradigms about human trafficking, sex work, and labor migration, particularly as they pertain to populations in the UAE. I also look at how discourse regarding trafficking has been produced through mainstream media, journalistic representation of the issues, and policy and political documentations. Metadiscourse consists of policy, media and journalistic representations, and popularized paradigms about a topic. These paradigms feed policy, as well as the implementation of policies, which then becomes a part of discourse. Thus I look at the effect of mainstream discourse on forming policies about trafficking and migration, and point to ways in which both discourse and policies not only differ from the actual experiences and trajectories of migrants and trafficked persons, but also impact them negatively and exacerbate the situation of forced laborers and migrants in need.

The Trafficking Discourse

The concept of discourse is particularly useful when looking at the way in which conversations, policies, and portrayals of trafficking align or disconnect with the definition of human trafficking (as outlined by the United Nations) and narratives of persons who have been labeled trafficked. The official definition of trafficking as stated in Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (note the disjuncture in the UN agency designated to monitor human trafficking, an agency dedicated to organized crime and drug trafficking rather than the human rights arm of the UN) is as follows:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs ... The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] have been used.

On the basis of the definition of trafficking given in this protocol, it is evident that trafficking in persons has three constituent elements; (1) the act (what is done); namely, recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, (2) the means (how it is done), including the threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim, and (3) the purpose (why it is done); possible categories include exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs.

As the agreed-upon definition of trafficking in the international community, this description is broad enough to encapsulate a number of abuses to migrants in many sectors; yet the functional definition of the term, as produced and perpetuated by the discourse, has focused solely on sex work. While the broad brush of this UN definition would seem to include the legal definition of trafficking given earlier—referring to persons who have experienced force, fraud, or coercion—policies and discourse seek to connect sex work (rather than forced labor or migration) with trafficking to the exclusion of migrants in other labor sectors who experience abuse. Moreover, each state has subtle nuances in the definition of trafficking and, more prominently, in deciding who counts as a trafficked person. It is useful to assess U.S. domestic and international policies on trafficking, as these have played a major role in structuring the discourse on trafficking and can also be read as products of discourse and debates about trafficking, migration, and sex work.


Excerpted from GRIDLOCK by PARDIS MAHDAVI Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Trafficking Trafficking....................11
2 Dubai Inc....................34
3 Sex Work....................61
4 Migration in Context....................91
5 Labor Outside Law....................125
6 An (Un)Civil Society....................148
7 Building Towers, Building Structures....................185
8 Building Castles in the Sand....................212

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