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Helping the Uninsured: Foreign Workers in Dubai

Posted on May 02, 2013 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Dubai Health Authority, foreign workers, Medecins Sans Frontiers, migrant workers, UAE

It would be an understatement to say that the population of the United Arab Emirates has grown quickly. Census data shows that in the past 40 years, the population of the UAE has increased by 700 percent. Whereas just over 500,000 people resided in the UAE in 1975, today there are nearly eight million residents who call the Emirates home. A large percentage of these new residents are expats and foreign workers, and although many high caliber expats will receive health insurance through their jobs, low-wage, blue collar foreign workers often do not; especially in Dubai. 

The emirate of Dubai is the largest in the UAE in terms of population, with many of these residents being low-wage workers who have migrated from Asia or the Arab Middle East to find a job in the region's booming oil industry. Indeed, oil is one of the major reasons that nearly 90 percent of the entire UAE is comprised of people who were not born within the Emirates.

To better support these foreign workers, emirates such as Abu Dhabi have implemented mandatory health insurance, meaning that employers must provide health coverage for their employees, or face a fine of Dh3000 or more per employee, every month. Thanks to that law, 98 percent of people in Abu Dhabi now have insurance. Dubai, however, has no such mandate, and so many low-wage workers in the emirate have very limited access to health care services.

The issue of health insurance for foreign workers found its way into the UAE news this week, when the co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontiers attended a May 1st conference in downtown Dubai. Bernard Kouchner, also a former politician and doctor in France, commented that despite the UAE's commendable developments in terms of health and standard of living in recent years, low-wage workers do not have enough money to make use of these services. According to Kouchner, foreigners are especially vulnerable when it comes to health care, because these workers will send the majority of their salary to family back home. With limited resources remaining, a visit to a Dubai hospital is not usually possible.

Kouchner has said that every emirate in the UAE should provide at least basic health insurance to foreign, blue collar workers; most of whom enter the country with very little money, and have no recourse when a medical problem arises.

In fact, the Dubai Health Authority has for some years been working toward a plan to guarantee insurance for every resident of the Emirate. Much like the system in Abu Dhabi, the Dubai plan would put the responsibility of coverage upon employers, who would be required to purchase health insurance for employees and their families. Any employer failing to offer health insurance coverage would be made to pay a fine. This Dubai health insurance law was originally scheduled to come into effect in 2009, however due to economic problems across the Emirates, the plan never materialized.

This March, the Dubai Health Authority once again announced that it was in the final stages of implementing a plan that would mandate insurance coverage for every Dubai resident, including foreign workers. Along with requiring employers to buy insurance for their workers, the new health policy would also integrate more technology into the system of hospitals and health insurance - patients would be able to make claims over the internet, and with better electronic records, insurance fraud could be reduced. What's more, having a greater proportion of the Dubai population using one electronic medical system would increase the clarity of health records and help the Dubai Health Authority to better understand medical trends, problems and costs throughout the emirate.

However, some people doubt that the Dubai Health Authority will be implementing an insurance mandate any time soon. The plan did not come to fruition in 2009, and today, there is still no timeline as to when changes to Dubai's insurance system might be put in place. The Health Authority itself has admitted that mandating insurance for thousands of foreign workers within the emirate, workers who were previously not covered by any health insurance, could put a big strain on hospitals and other health care services.

Until this insurance plan comes into place, low-wage workers in Dubai must rely upon medical charities in the event of a series accident or illness. The Mosaadah assistance program, for example, is a collaboration between the Dubai Health Authority and various charities in the region. In 2012, the Mosaadah program gave assistance to over 300 patients, helping to cover the cost of hospital stays, oxygen machines and neonatal care. One article from the news site recounts the story of a 19 year old migrant from Sudan. After coming to the UAE to work, this Sudanese teenager became infected with a severe, flesh-eating bacteria. Thanks to more than Dh100,000 from the Mosaadah assistance program, he has been able to afford a 15 month stay in the hospital, and the cost of a leg amputation.

Unfortunately, many more people apply for help than the Mosaadah program can afford to assist. If the Dubai Health Authority does manage to implement a health insurance mandate, low-wage, foreign workers who have been denied by charitable foundations might finally have the chance to receive the health care they've been seeking.


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