New Law Should Protect Right to Strike and Cover Domestic Workers
March 26, 2007
We hope that the Labor Ministry takes advantage of this process to revise the serious flaws in its draft law.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

(Dubai) - The United Arab Emirates' proposed labor law falls far short of international standards for workers' rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The law should be revised to protect workers' rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike, and to cover excluded groups such as domestic workers.

On February 5, the UAE Labor Ministry published a draft of a revised labor law on the internet and invited public comment. Human Rights Watch welcomed the move, but has provided critiques and recommendations on a number of issues.

In a 15-page report, Human Rights Watch details how the UAE's draft labor law violates international standards - and how it needs to be revised. The law fails to address a series of abuses against workers that Human Rights Watch has documented in two reports published within the past year. The law fails to address a series of abuses against workers that Human Rights Watch has documented in two reports published within the past year. Migrant workers, who comprise 95 percent of the country's workforce, are particularly at risk of abuse.

"The Labor Ministry's request for comments on the draft law represents an important step toward reform and transparency in the UAE," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "We hope that the Labor Ministry takes advantage of this process to revise the serious flaws in its draft law."

In blatant contravention of international standards, the proposed law contains no provisions on workers' rights to organize and to bargain collectively and explicitly punishes striking workers. The UAE is currently undergoing a dramatic construction boom, and most of the 700,000 construction workers in the country are from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In a report released in November, "Building Towers, Cheating Workers," Human Rights Watch documented the government's refusal to allow construction workers to organize trade unions and to bargain collectively, and the recent passage of a resolution banning striking workers from employment for at least one year.

"The UAE must amend its draft law to respect workers' rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike," said Whitson. "In the past year, the authorities have put down attempted strikes with violence rather than addressing the poor working conditions that fuel labor unrest."

The draft labor law also violates international standards by arbitrarily excluding from its purview all domestic workers employed in private households, public sector workers, security workers and most farming and grazing workers, leaving them at risk of exploitation.

In a report released in July 2006, "Swept Under the Rug," Human Rights Watch documented how domestic workers in the UAE have few remedies in cases of abuse. Domestic workers often report exploitative working conditions, including forced confinement, nonpayment of wages, denial of food, and excessive working hours with no rest days. The UAE employs more than 600,000 domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia.

"The government should extend equal labor protections to domestic workers instead of reinforcing the discrimination that they already face," said Whitson.

In addition, the draft law includes a number of provisions that discriminate against women workers. In violation of international human rights norms banning discrimination on the basis of sex, the proposed law limits women's access to nighttime employment and "heavy" work. By sanctioning punishment for male guardians who violate the laws applicable to women, the law treats women workers as dependents rather than as competent adults with full and independent legal capacity.

The draft labor law also fails to incorporate the 2001 Dubai Court of Cassation ruling that prohibited employers from confiscating the passports of employees. In its report on construction workers in the UAE, Human Rights Watch found that the court's ruling, in practice, has had virtually no impact.

"It's an open secret that employers in the UAE often confiscate the passports of their employees," Whitson said. "Yet the government chooses to ignore this widespread and illegal practice and refuses to punish the offending employers."

Human Rights Watch urged that the proposed labor law require that employment contracts and instructions be made available to workers in a language they speak fluently to combat the misinformation and deception that further fuel the exploitation of migrant workers in the UAE.

The government should show real commitment to enforcing its labor laws by providing effective penalties for violations of the law and punishing employers who violate the law. The current law continues to provide weak financial penalties of between 6,000 and 12,000 dirhams (US$1,600-3,200) for employers found in breach of the law.

"The new labor law will not be able to curb employer abuses if it's not coupled with serious enforcement and real penalties," said Whitson. "The current fine of a few thousand dollars isn't even a slap on the wrist for employers with multi-million-dollar contracts."