No Free Trade Pacts Without Reform
March 29, 2006
One of the world’s largest construction booms is feeding off of workers in Dubai, but they’re treated as less than human. It’s no surprise that some workers have started rioting in protest. What’s surprising is that the government of the UAE is doing nothing to solve the problem.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

The government of the United Arab Emirates should take immediate steps to end the abusive labor practices that have helped spark recent unrest by migrant workers in Dubai, Human Rights Watch said today.

During the past year, migrant workers have increasingly resorted to public protests and strikes in an attempt to improve working conditions. UAE government figures show that between May and December 2005, at least eight major strikes took place. The latest, in Dubai last week, quickly spread from construction workers who rioted at one skyscraper to others working on a new airport terminal.

“One of the world’s largest construction booms is feeding off of workers in Dubai, but they’re treated as less than human,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s no surprise that some workers have started rioting in protest. What’s surprising is that the government of the UAE is doing nothing to solve the problem.”

Though the skyscraper strike was settled, the UAE government has been unwilling to make a real commitment to stop systematic abuses by employers, including the extended non-payment of wages, the denial of proper medical care, and the squalid conditions in which most migrant workers live.

Migrant workers comprise nearly 90 percent of the workforce in the private sector in the UAE. They are denied basic rights such as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Human Rights Watch urged the UAE government to drastically expand its staff overseeing migrant labor treatment. According to government sources, the ministry of labor employs only 80 inspectors to oversee the activities of nearly 200,000 businesses that sponsor and employ migrant workers.

The UAE government should also reform its labor laws to conform to international standards set by the International Labor Organization, and become a party to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Human Rights Watch said.

The UAE is not a party to key international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Employers routinely deny construction workers their wages. Officials with the UAE Permanent Committee for Labor and Immigration told Human Rights Watch that last year alone, nearly 20,000 workers filed complaints with the government about the non-payment of wages and labor camp conditions.

Most construction workers secure work in the UAE by taking loans from recruiting agencies in their home country. A typical construction worker uses a large portion of his wages towards repayment of such loans on a monthly basis, and without wages he falls further into debt. The result is virtual debt bondage.

Death and injury at the workplace are also on the rise. Independent research published in local media found that as many as 880 deaths occurred at construction sites in 2004. These numbers were compiled by surveying embassies of countries that have large number of workers in the UAE. Government figures contrast sharply with these findings, stating that the total number of deaths in 2004 was only 34.

“The government is turning a blind eye to a huge problem,” said Whitson. “If it doesn’t start taking drastic new steps to improve conditions, further unrest seems inevitable.”

The governments of the United States, the European Union, and Australia are currently negotiating free trade agreements with the UAE. Human Rights Watch called on these governments to require improvement of UAE’s labor practices and legal standards before signing such agreements. Human Rights Watch also urged these governments to include in any free trade agreements reached with the UAE strong, enforceable workers’ rights provisions that require parties’ labor laws to meet international standards, and the effective enforcement of those laws.

Human Rights Watch recently conducted a fact-finding mission on the conditions of migrant workers in the UAE and will be releasing its full findings in the next few months.