UAE must amend labour laws to bring Emirates in line with UDHR

UAE must amend labour laws to bring Emirates in line with UDHR
Courtesy: Wilson Centre

The appalling treatment of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who constitute 80% of the population and 95% of the workforce, has largely escaped international scrutiny. 


Since the first oil flowed from the Umm Shaif offshore field in 1962, the UAE, comprising seven semi-autonomous emirates, has experienced phenomenal economic growth. With an Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota of 2.53 million barrels per day as of May 2007, the UAE is the third-largest producer of oil and gas in the world, following Saudi Arabia and Iran. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan described Dubai as "one of the world’s greatest economic miracles".


However, the South Asian workforce, whose labour has been instrumental in this development, has not shared in the wealth. Human Rights Watch estimates that 95% of the UAE’s labour force, or approximately 2.7 million workers, are migrants from countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.


Exploitation of these workers, ranging from non-payment of wages to physical abuse, is systematic. The UAE’s labour laws heavily favour employers, and the enforcement mechanisms are ineffective. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs lacks the capacity and willingness to enforce these laws, and there is evidence suggesting that the government benefits from maintaining a large migrant workforce in conditions of bondage. Key areas needing urgent reform include the right to organise and bargain collectively, prohibition of strikes, inclusion of domestic workers under labour law, and penalties for violations.


The plight of Cambodian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia exemplifies the broader issues faced by migrant workers in the region. On May 20, a group of Cambodian female workers posted a video on Facebook, pleading for their government’s intervention to expedite their repatriation. These women, who traveled to Saudi Arabia through the Cambodian firm Fatina Manpower Co Ltd, have been enduring difficult conditions for months, hoping for a swift resolution to their predicament. 


In April, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training announced plans to cooperate with the Cambodian embassy in Egypt to rescue and repatriate 78 workers who were allegedly forced to work long hours with insufficient food in Saudi Arabia.


Despite these efforts, 28 workers still remain in Saudi Arabia. One woman recounted that their video appeal for assistance, posted on social media since April 18, quickly went viral. This prompted the Minister of Labour and Vocational Training Heng Sour to take immediate action, transferring them to a safe location. While they now have adequate food and shelter, the women are desperate to return home. "Some workers have returned to Cambodia, but our group of about 28 workers, who were supposed to fly back on April 19, are still waiting for departure," she explained. They have completed all necessary documentation, yet their return has been inexplicably delayed. "I want to ask the company in Cambodia to explain why I haven’t returned yet. Although we have enough to eat here, it is very difficult because we cannot go anywhere. Please, Prime Minister Hun Manet, help us," she pleaded.


Fatina Manpower seeking to “clarify” on their involvement in this debacle, released a statement on social media in late April. The labour recruitment firm states that whilst “some workers” face “negative action from customers”, “not all of their customers” treat labourers poorly. Also going on to suggest that the workers who had posted content to social media, “don’t want to continue their work” and therefore, “spread out these negative points and post on social media”. They did state that they were involved in the process of repatriation, seemingly portraying contact with the Cambodian embassy, also sending one of their staff “to stay with workers in the hotel”, who are awaiting departure, “to arrange food for them during this period”.


The prolonged wait for repatriation and uncertain future have taken a toll on the workers' mental health and financial stability. Many workers are primary breadwinners for their families and are eager to return home to seek new employment opportunities. Phle Somaly, a 30-year-old single mother, needs to return to care for her one-year-old son and elderly mother. She described the unbearable mental strain of being confined to a room, likening it to a form of slavery. Somaly also highlighted the financial burdens, including a significant debt she is unable to repay while stranded in Saudi Arabia. “What we want is to go back to Cambodia because we can no longer stay here. The reason is because we owe the bank, we have no money, no milk for our children. Their health is deteriorating while we get to have two meals”.“If I stayed, I would probably have a mental breakdown because I am stuck in a room,” said Somaly. 


This situation is not unique to Cambodian workers. In the UAE, the sponsorship system ensures that employees are completely controlled by their employers. Workers must have a work permit, supplied by the employer, often referred to as a sponsor when discussing permits, to work in the UAE. The operation of the system of agencies ensures that workers must spend around two years repaying their loans. Hickox, writing in the Comparative Labour Law Journal, explains the system: 


"In the U.A.E., for example, a foreign worker must be sponsored by a licensed entity, or an individual sponsored by such an entity, which is registered with the Ministry of Labour … Sponsorship requirements also play a role in the control of foreign workers within the country. The transfer of sponsorship is restricted by labour-importing states, so as to ensure that foreign labour remains where it fulfils the economic needs, as determined at the time a work permit was issued. In the U.A.E., the guest worker may work for no one other than his sponsor unless he leaves the country and returns under a new sponsorship… This system, as applied to lower-level positions, has been analogised to slavery. The system is so characterised because the employee is tied to one employer".


The sponsorship system ensures that employees are completely controlled by their employers. They cannot change sponsors without the express approval of those who ‘sponsor’ them, and it appears this may not be transferred unless the employee falls into one of the applicable categories for transfer and meets certain requirements laid down by the ministries. It is difficult to say with any certainty what these categories and requirements are as they are continually being revised. For example, there were three ministerial resolutions alone in 2005, and their interpretation and application are subject to the discretion of the ministries.


The UAE Ministry of Labour claims to administer the labour market and implement labour policy in the country, aiming to balance the interests of workers, employers, and society. However, in practice, the Ministry guards only the interests of public and private enterprises, obstructs the filing of complaints, and is incapable of enforcing either their rulings or their directives. Laws are only as strong as the mechanisms that enforce them, and there is overwhelming evidence that UAE labour law does not protect migrant workers from exploitative labour practices. Complaints and worker abuses are rarely addressed, and the available information on worker protests likely represents only a fraction of the abuses taking place. The Ministry's reluctance to release figures and the lack of official records until recently highlight the inefficiency in handling labour disputes.


For example, workers wishing to file a complaint frequently encounter difficulties, including language barriers, obstructive officials, and fees for submitting complaints. These issues are compounded by the Ministry's inadequate response to complaints and the lack of effective enforcement of labour laws. In one instance, 38 South Asians were prevented from making a complaint because they could not afford a AED 20 typing charge. The men had instead brought a handwritten complaint, which was rejected. Ministry staff informed the men that they would each have to submit an individual complaint (and each incur an individual charge), when in fact labour law allows for the submission of joint complaints. The men, whose complaint was that they had not been paid for five months, were ultimately unable to lodge an official complaint.


The extraordinary wealth of the UAE contrasts sharply with the pitiful conditions of the migrant workers who constitute an overwhelming majority of the population. Addressing this inequality and injustice is not beyond reach, given the UAE's resources. It is crucial for the international community to recognise and act upon this issue, ensuring that migrant workers receive the rights and protections they deserve. The recruitment and employment systems in the UAE need substantial reform to eliminate the conditions of modern slavery and provide a basic standard of living for all workers.


Civil society advocates emphasise the need for better protection and support for migrant workers. Sam Ath, a civil society advocate, highlighted the necessity of government review and monitoring of companies that send workers abroad. The lack of studies on the mental health impact of labour rights violations underscores the urgent need for reform. Ensuring basic rights and dignified living conditions for migrant workers in the UAE requires both domestic and international efforts.


Accordingly, addressing the exploitation and modern slavery conditions faced by these workers is not only a moral imperative but also a necessary step towards achieving true economic and social justice.


Policy Recommendations based on UDHR


Firstly, amending labour laws to guarantee the right to organise and bargain collectively is essential for the protection of workers' rights. These amendments should not prohibit strikes and include domestic workers under labour law protections. Additionally, laws must ban the confiscation of passports and other identity documents to ensure the freedom and autonomy of workers. These changes align with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), particularly Article 23, which states that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment. By integrating these provisions into national labour laws, we can foster a more equitable and just labour environment.

To ensure that labour laws are upheld, it is crucial to develop robust enforcement mechanisms. This includes establishing an independent body to oversee compliance and address worker complaints promptly and effectively. Such measures are in line with Article 8 of the UDHR, which guarantees the right to an effective remedy by competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted by the constitution or by law. Strengthening enforcement mechanisms will help protect workers from exploitation and abuse.

Additionally, mandating minimum standards for worker accommodations and ensuring regular inspections to enforce these standards are vital steps in improving working and living conditions for labourers. Employers must be held accountable for providing safe and healthy living conditions. This effort is supported by Article 25 of the UDHR, which recognises the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.


Further, regulating recruitment agencies to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers is another critical aspect. Ensuring that workers are not charged recruitment fees and that employment contracts are transparent and written in a language the worker understands is essential for protecting their rights. These practices align with Article 23 of the UDHR, which emphasises the right to just and favourable conditions of work. 


Moreover, developing clear and efficient processes for the repatriation of migrant workers, particularly in cases of labour disputes or exploitation, is vital. Workers must have access to legal assistance and support throughout the repatriation process. This aligns with Article 13 of the UDHR, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state and the right to leave any country, including one's own.

Engaging with international organisations, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), to adopt and implement international labour standards is crucial. Ratifying core ILO conventions, including those on freedom of association and collective bargaining, will promote international cooperation and improve labour conditions. This is consistent with Article 20 of the UDHR, which guarantees the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.


Furthermore, encouraging and supporting the efforts of civil society organisations to monitor labour conditions, advocate for workers’ rights, and provide assistance to migrant workers in distress are essential steps. These efforts align with Article 19 of the UDHR, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media.


Ensuring that the Ministry of Labour publishes regular reports on labour conditions and enforcement activities will increase transparency and accountability. Creating a public database of labour violations and the actions taken to address them will further enhance this transparency. These measures align with Article 21 of the UDHR, which emphasises the right to participate in the government and the equal access to public service.


Offering training programs for employers, recruitment agencies, and government officials on fair labour practices and the rights of migrant workers is essential. Educating workers on their rights and available resources for assistance will empower them and enhance their protection. This aligns with Article 26 of the UDHR, which emphasises the right to education and the full development of human personality.


Recognising the mental health impacts of labour exploitation and providing accessible mental health support services for migrant workers is crucial. Conducting research on the psychological effects of labour rights violations to inform policy and support initiatives will further this cause. This effort is supported by Article 25 of the UDHR, which includes the right to medical care and necessary social services.


These comprehensive measures will strengthen the legal protections for workers, enhance enforcement mechanisms, and improve the overall working and living conditions for labourers, ensuring their rights and dignity are upheld in accordance with the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By implementing these policy recommendations, the UAE can take significant steps towards ensuring the protection and dignity of its migrant workforce, aligning its labour practices with international human rights standards, and fostering a more just and equitable society.



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