2006 Human Rights Watch Report on UAE: Building Towers, Cheating Workers

Posted on December 6, 2006


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a constitutional federation of seven emirates; Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujaira. Migrant foreign workers represent 95 percent of the workforce in the United Arab Emirates, and as of 2005, there were 2,738,000 migrant workers in the country. About 20 percent of these workers are employed in construction, and are primarily illiterate, poor men from South Asia from rural communities.

Human Rights Watch, through a rigorous set of interviews with multiple stakeholders, has determined that the following issues are currently in practice in the UAE with respect to their foreign workers

Excerpts from Summary of 2006 Human Rights Watch Report on UAE:

1. The Recruitment Process. Migrant construction workers are abused in their home countries, where they pay local recruitment agencies very high fees (in the range of $2,000-$3,000) to arrange for their employment contract, obtain an employment visa for the UAE, and purchase their air travel, and must therefore take loans.

2. Unpaid wages. Besides workers having to repay the loans mentioned above, construction firms immediately withhold a worker’s first two months of wages leading the worker to fall behind in his debt, and additional charges start to accrue. Workers are sometimes faced with employers who fail to pay wages for longer periods of time, leading them to leave their jobs and return home with huge debts.

3. Witholding of passports. All of the construction workers interviewed for the HRW report said that their employers confiscated their passports upon their arrival in the UAE, to prevent their migrant workers’ absconding.

4. Extremely low wages. The migrant worker on average earns US$175 a month for his labor on a construction site, an amazing difference from the average per capita income in the UAE of $2,106 a month.

5. Safety and health hazards. While building high-rises, workers incur many hazards. Human Rights Watch learned that only 140 government inspectors were responsible for overseeing the labor practices of more than 240,000 businesses employing migrant workers. Poor documentation of accidents and deaths exists. “According to government figures available for Dubai, 34 construction workers died at their work sites in 2004, and 39 in 2005, but based on figures from an independent investigation by a local trade publication, it appears that in 2004 the number of work-site deaths of Indian workers alone was certainly higher than the 34 recorded for all nationalities in Dubai.”

UAE federal labor law provisions apply to both UAE nationals and migrant workers, but the government has not consistently enforced UAE law. It does not allow workers to organize trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers. In September 2006, the Ministry of Labor banned striking migrant workers from further employment in the country for at least one year. Before this resolution, the government deported workers suspected of organizing strikes on several occasions.

Changing to a different job is not an option for the worker. The migrant construction workers of the UAE, who like all other migrant workers in the country are contracted to work only for a specific employer. A worker seeking to move to a different employer can only do so only after working for two years for the present employer and obtaining his or her consent to the move.

The HRW has concluded the following :

In each aspect of the troubled working conditions faced by construction workers in the UAE, the federal government has done little or nothing. It has failed to create adequate mechanisms to investigate, prosecute, penalize, or remedy breaches of its own laws. For example, having made a point of passing a law that bans both local recruitment agencies and local employers from charging workers any fee in connection with the recruitment or employment process, it has made little effort to punish recruiting agents who persist in making these charges, or the employers who are complicit, nor has it acted against the circumvention of the law by UAE employers and recruitment agents who “outsource” charging workers fees to recruitment agents located in source countries. The federal government’s efforts to counter employers’ withholding of wages has been sporadic, at best. While aggrieved workers are entitled to seek a hearing before the Ministry of Labor, which arbitrates disputes and refers unresolved cases to the judiciary, the availability of arbitration remains a limited option. Government officials, including the minister of labor, have themselves criticized the arbitration process as inadequate and in need of urgent reform. Some of the ministry’s arbitrators have been accused of protecting the interests of construction businesses instead of implementing the provisions of the labor law in a just and fair manner. The ministry apparently keeps no comprehensive information (including statistics) about the cases it arbitrates.Recourse to the judiciary has also proved to be of limited use to workers. In theory, UAE labor law provides penalties for any violation of its provisions, including non-payment of wages, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to document a single instance where an employer was sanctioned, either by prison time or financial penalties, for failing to pay its workers. Even workers who have succeeded in obtaining judgments against their employers have been unable to enforce them to recover their wages, much less succeed in seeing the employer punished with fines or imprisonment.”

Please click here for a multimedia presentation of the situation of foreign workers in the UAE. This multimedia includes both slides and sound. Wait a couple of minutes while it loads; it will start playing by itself.

Overview of Main Human Rights Watch Recommendations

(More detailed recommendations are available in downloadable report from the HRF website; see link below)

To the Government of the United Arab Emirates
1. Establish an independent commission to investigate and publicly report on the situation of migrant workers in the country.

2. Prohibit companies from doing business with recruitment agencies, in the UAE and abroad, that charge workers fees for travel, visas, employment contracts, or anything else. Prosecute and implement significant penalties for employers and recruiting agencies that violate the law.

3. Aggressively investigate and prosecute employers who violate other provisions of the UAE labor law. Impose meaningful and consequential penalties on companies that violate workers’ rights, to put an end to the present atmosphere of impunity.

4. Provide quantitative and qualitative data on labor disputes, deaths and injuries at construction sites, and government actions to address these issues.

5. Increase substantially the number of inspectors responsible for overseeing the private sector’s treatment of migrant construction workers. Ensure that they carry out their duties to inspect construction sites to verify that they are safe and meet the requirements of law.

6. Take immediate action to inform and educate migrant construction workers arriving for employment in the UAE of their rights under UAE law.

7. Abide by the obligation under the UAE labor law of 1980 to implement a minimum wage.

8. Allow for the establishment of genuine and independent human rights and workers’ rights organizations.

9. Ratify the International Labour Organization’s Conventions No. 87 and No. 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and amend UAE labor law to incorporate the conventions’ protections.

10. Ratify the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 155 on occupational safety and health.

11. Ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

The HRW also makes recommendations for actions to other parties, and these can be read in the complete report.

The above is only a summary of the 2006 Human Rights Watch Report entitled “Building Towers, Cheating Workers”, and it can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat PDF format here. The download is 1.2 megabytes in size and 75 pages in length. © Copyright 2006, Human Rights Watch 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA