For most jiu jitsu men and women, Abu Dhabi is more than the capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it is the name of one of jiu jitsu’s most well known grappling tournaments, a tournament funded by his highness Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed, also known as the ‘jiu jitsu Sheikh’. Sheikh Tahnoon represents Abu Dhabi’s eastern region and is a member of the UAE’s ruling Al Nahyan family.
Sheikh Tahnoon fell in love with Brazilian jiu jitsu in his teenage years, and has since done great things for the sport, such as sponsoring the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club), or his funding of the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championships, an amazing tournament that has helped raise the profile of the sport all across the globe and point it towards professionalism. But the honourable Sheikh’s interest did not stop here. Seeing the benefits brought by jiu jitsu to himself, he envisioned the whole of the emirates learning grappling from some of the best coaches money could buy. Not a man to leave dreams unattended, he designed a strategy to put this vision to practice and ordered the creation of a company that would put his plan in action. That company is called Palm Sports.
Palm Sports’ purpose is to lure and manage Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt instructors into coming to the Emirates to teach the martial art they love.
In the third paragraph of their brochure you can read:
“You will earn a US$4000 wage with extras, a health plan extensive to your family free of cost, a fully furnished flat to live with your family, free of charge. We will open a bank account for you to receive your wage, give you a loan at no interest so you can buy a car, and mind you a car costs half of what it does in Brazil and gas is very cheap”
The brochure also shows pictures of beaches in a modern culture buzzing with life, a great deal indeed for many of jiu jitsu’s finest who still struggle to make a living in an amateur sport. The list of Palm Sports black belt employees has big names such as Alexander Trans, Helder Medeiros, Marina Ribeiro, José Junior, even the famous Márcio André who joined them last week.
Though the deal seems amazing on paper, the Palm Sports proposals should all have adjacent asterisks:
*This promise may or may not materialize.
Johann Luporini is a black belt under Master André Luiz Soares “Gigueto” and a Muay Thai instructor who trained under Master “Baioneta”, a well known thai boxer in Brazil. Though Johann had a well paid job outside jiu jitsu, he read the leaflet and decided to apply, on paper, “the offer was that good”.
After a few email exchanges and a couple of Skype interviews, Johann was called to Rio de Janeiro for a trial at a hotel. He spent the day doing tests together with around 100 to 150 other black belts, showing positions and doing written tests after which he went back to his house in Fortaleza.
A few weeks passed and he heard from Palm Sports again, he was selected and had 1 week to move, that week turned out to be 20 days, but so far so good. He was told that he would have to share his apartment, the first breach in the idyllic promises made on the leaflet, but “not a big problem” Johann thought, he was a single man, he didn’t need a whole house for himself. He was going to be living the dream, teaching jiu jitsu for an amazing pay in a foreign country, the only thing that put Johann on the back pedal at first was a little bulletpoint on his contract saying:
“Change of benefits: The company reserves the right to modify any of the above listed benefits at any time at its sole discretion. You will be advised of any change as and when they occur”
An interesting clause to have on an employee’s contract, one that would be dismissed by most courts in any civilized country.
Upon arrival, Johann soon understood that the paradise on earth he had been promised was nowhere to be found. As he reached the head office of Palm Sports upon his landing, he was told he would be stationed in Sharjah, one of the emirates of UAE with much more rigid laws than Abu Dhabi, where he would work on a military base.
Living in a crammed apartment, having to wake up at 3:30am to take a bus to a military base, only to return home at 7:30/8pm, working under the blazing Arab sun with no food available was not what he signed up for.
The problems started piling up, on the first week when 5 of his colleagues had to get medical assistance, this due to the extreme conditions they were working under. They found out then that the medical care would be deducted from their wages as their health insurance was not available. After many requests for better working conditions and the health insurance situation to be dealt with, the common response was: “If you’re not happy, go back to your country”.
Being an educated man, Johann Luporini decided to study UAE’s employment laws, finding that what Palm Sports was doing was not only immoral, but also illegal in their own country, as the ART 101 of United Arab Emirates Labour Law states:
“Every employer employing persons in remote areas not served with public transportation shall provide them, at cost of the employer the following services:
1 – Suitable transportation
2 – Suitable accommodation
3 – Suitable Drinking water
4 – Suitable food
5 – First aid services
6 – Means for entertainment and sports activities”
After a series of backwards and forwards emails with the Palm Sports representatives, including an internal email wrongly sent to Johann by the management, dismissing the workers complaints, Luporini had had enough. He packed his bags and went home. Unfortunately, many other workers have less means of subsistence and no choice but to accept the breach of contract and breach of moral conduct.
We have recently received the new contracts offered by Palm Sports to the coaches arriving from December onwards. Those contracts are now lower in value (US$3500 per month), the instructors will also only be allowed to bring their families after spending a minimum of one year in the Emirates.
This, according to Mr. Luporini, is a clear breach of the Equal Remuneration Convention signed and rectified in 1997 where ART 02 writes:
“Each member shall by means appropriate to the methods in operation for determining rates of remuneration, promote and, in so far as is consistent with such methods ensure the application to all workers of the principle of equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value.”
(Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 ratified by United Arab Emirates on 24.02.1997)
According to our sources, Palm Sports underwent a change in management 6 months ago, and the current administration has taken a drastic change in approach towards it’s working force, one of cutting costs at the expense of their employees. The fact is that the company is hiring more and more jiu jitsu men and women, and understanding that there is plenty of fish in a sea of unemployed jiu jitsu black belts, they do not need to care for their employee’s as much as they did in the past, this is pretty evident as the benefits once provided seem to be dissipating.
But not all is bad, one of the things Johann asked to be mentioned in this article, was that he’s bad experience in the UAE stopped at Palm Sports’ management, and that the Arab people and the military with whom he worked all showed great hospitality, hospitality for which the community is well known for.
Is jiu jitsu’s paradise lost? If the workers conditions and the management of Palm Sports continues to follow this line of business, it would seem so.