WASHINGTON -- The conundrum was simple enough. An employee of a company in the United Arab Emirates, while on vacation outside the country, received a job offer in India that was too good to pass up. He sent a resignation letter to his UAE employer, and upon their acceptance of his resignation, started up a new gig.
Ten years later, he had an opportunity come up in Dubai. With plans to take it, his future Dubai employer tried to get him a work visa. But as they prepared to bring their new employee back to the UAE, they found they couldn’t. The man’s former employer from 10 years earlier had filed a case against him, accusing him of leaving his post and absconding on a visa. Not only could he not take the job -- he couldn’t even re-enter the UAE without being arrested.
The case, laid out in a desperate post on an online forum, is one in a countless barrage of allegedly false absconding charges, a growing trend in the UAE that’s seen Emirates-based companies wield visas over their employees’ heads to keep them from leaving or speaking out against dire working conditions. The targets, who plead for legal advice on countless online legal forums, are tough to independently verify, a process further complicated by an Emirati justice system that defers to the charges of the employers. But their collective pleas all tell a similar story: They often simply quit their job -- and then found themselves trapped in the Emirates or outside of it, blacklisted without a passport, without a visa and in most cases, without access to legal representation.
The majority of cases begin in a straightforward way. A foreign worker, whose UAE-based employer sponsors their work visa, decides to find a new job. Little do they know, their employer has filed an absconding case against them, accusing them of wrongfully abandoning their occupation and bailing on their visa. More often than not, they’re thrown in an Emirati jail. But the fix is simple enough, the employees’ jailers say. Just come show your passport and you can get out on bail.
The problem, in many cases, is that the same company that brought the false case also confiscated the accused’s passport upon their arrival in country, in an effort to hold leverage over their employee. Some accused absconders are told they can pay their way out of a case by sending thousands of dollars to the UAE’s Ministry of Labor, which in return, seldom punts the case. It’s the epitome of a Catch-22.
Shez Cassim, an American comic who was thrown in a UAE prison without charge or bail for nearly a year in 2013 after posting a satirical video, recalled that there were several absconders who were held with him in the squalid conditions of a maximum-security UAE prison. The court system, he noted, is in Arabic, with no translators for the many defendants who, like him, can't follow along.
“One particular prisoner was a pipe welder who had gotten a job offer in Malaysia, so he had informed his employer that he was resigning because he was taking his job offer in Malaysia,” recalled Cassim. The employer filed a false absconding case against the welder after he quit his job, Cassim said.
“Eventually he was given an offer: ‘We’ll let you out on bail if you hand over your passport as bail,’” Cassim said. “But he couldn’t do that because the employer was illegally holding onto the pipe builder’s passport. ... It’s a case of, you go into jail and you just do the time.”
Just the concept of “absconding” is enough to make some human rights experts scratch their heads.
“Why do you have an absconding law in the first place? What is absconding? It’s called ‘quitting,’” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It treats workers like cattle. Literally their entire existence in their country is dependent on the employer.”
And in a country where more than 95 percent of the private workforce is migrant labor, wielding visas for power can carry a lot of weight. Richard Mintz, who represents the UAE in Washington, told HuffPost that the UAE's record should be judged alongside those of others in the region, who are doing less to make progress on issues such as labor rights.
But, he said, that doesn't mean the country isn't trying to move forward. "Like any fast-growing society, it has its challenges -- balancing tradition with progress, developing new legal, governance and labor systems and standards, improving human capital quickly enough, etc.," he said. "The UAE would acknowledge that it has work to do in these and other areas, but in one generation in the most difficult of neighborhoods, it has dramatically changed and made a clear decision to be globally engaged, open and tolerant, and use its wealth for the benefit of its own people and for those across the region."
Migrant laborers have raised the alarm on false absconding cases for years, saying that companies can use the lax judicial system to leverage punishment against workers who try to strike or speak out against poor conditions, or leave the company entirely. In one of the more publicized cases, contractors working on the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi were lured out of a strike with the promise of negotiation with their bosses. But they weren’t met by management; they were met by police, who were there to arrest them for absconding and abandoning their job.
"It is all too easy for employers to label migrant workers who complain about their conditions as having absconded -- an offence under Emirati law," Mustafa Qadri, a researcher on migrants' rights at the International Secretariat, said in an email. "Migrant workers are still forbidden from joining or forming unions or collective bargaining. In the recent past dozens of workers have been subjected to physical and verbal abuse, arbitrary detention and forcibly expelled from the country for seeking to collectively raise complaints about their labour conditions or go on strike."