Background Briefing


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is currently considering revisions to its main labor law. Like other countries in the Gulf, the UAE is heavily reliant upon the labor of migrant workers, primarily from South Asia.  According to figures from 2005, 95 percent of the UAE’s labor pool, some 2.7 million workers, are migrants, many of whom work in the construction and domestic service industries. Meaningful reforms in the new labor law would have a significant and positive impact across South Asia and the Gulf and, if the final version of the law integrates key labor protections, it could become a leading model for the region.

Unfortunately, major omissions and provisions in violation of well-established international labor standards plague the draft law, which the government opened for public review and comment on February 5, 2007. Areas in urgent need of further reform include the exclusion of provisions on workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively; the prohibition of strikes; the exclusion of certain categories of workers, such as domestic and farming and grazing workers, from the protections of the labor law; ambiguity regarding the minimum age of employment; the prohibition of women from certain categories of work; the absence of provisions banning the confiscation of passports and other identity documents and requiring employment contracts to be made available in workers’ native languages; and inadequate and unenforced penalties for violations of the law.  

A 2006 Human Rights Watch report, “Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates,” highlighted significant labor abuses, such as extremely low wages, routine withholding of wages for months at a time, and the confiscation of worker passports as “security” to keep workers from quitting. When combined with worker indebtedness resulting from unlawful “recruiting fees,” these abuses create conditions that, in the worst cases, constitute forced labor.  The report also highlighted high rates of injury and death among construction workers, who have little assurance that employers will cover health care costs.

The report emphasized that the problem in the UAE is not merely that these labor abuses occur, but that the government has breached its duty to enforce its own laws and regulate the conduct of employers. We found that the UAE is failing to investigate and prosecute employers who violate labor laws; failing to establish a transparent, well-documented, and accessible system for the resolution of labor disputes; and failing to implement the country’s minimum wage law.  Moreover, the government has refused to allow workers to seek improvement in their working conditions by organizing trade unions or bargaining collectively with their employers. In September 2006, the Ministry of Labor issued a resolution banning striking migrant workers from further employment in the country for at least one year, a measure that has led to the deportation of striking workers.

Human Rights Watch also described abuses against migrant domestic workers in the UAE as part of a 2006 report, “Swept Under the Rug: Abuses against Domestic Workers Around the World.” Domestic workers, excluded even from the protections of existing UAE labor law, report a long list of abuses committed by employers and labor agents, including forced confinement in the workplace; non-payment of wages for months or years; and excessively long working hours with no rest days. In some cases, domestic workers experience physical or sexual abuse, or are trapped in situations of forced labor. The UAE falls far behind other governments that have extended equal labor protection to domestic workers, such as Hong Kong and South Africa.

The Ministry of Labor’s publication of the draft law and request for comments represent a significant step toward legislative transparency in the UAE. In addition, the Ministry’s actions demonstrate an exemplary willingness to engage the public in dialogue regarding issues of great importance to the rights of workers in the country. Human Rights Watch hopes that this open process yields a draft law that fully upholds internationally recognized workers’ rights standards and becomes a model for the enactment and amendment of laws for the UAE and for the entire region.

Certain provisions in the draft labor law include positive reforms and should be retained in the final legislation. For example, Article 15 requires employers to pay the expenses of migrant workers’ travel, employment permits, medical examinations, and other required administrative costs. In addition, Article 85 requires employers to cover the cost of workers’ health care, including coverage of migrant workers upon arrival in the country. These provisions provide important protections that, if enforced, could help prevent workers’ unjust indebtedness that increases the risk of egregious labor exploitation and conditions akin to debt bondage or other forms of forced labor.

In accordance with the Ministry’s request, Human Rights Watch offers the following comments on the draft law. We note at the outset that our comments are in no way meant to be comprehensive. We have simply highlighted areas of concern where we hope to provide constructive suggestions. Human Rights Watch urges the UAE government not only to create a law that respects international human rights standards, but also to ensure that the Ministry of Labor fulfills the requirements set out in the law regarding implementing resolutions, such as establishing a minimum wage.

Human Rights Watch also notes that the real test of a country’s respect for workers’ rights and compliance with international human rights law does not rest solely in the language contained in the country’s laws; rather, it rests equally in the government’s serious enforcement of its laws regulating the conduct of employers, its creation of institutions that fairly resolve disputes between workers and employers, and its aggressive investigation and prosecution of employers who violate its laws. We hope that the UAE will match its commitment to reforming its labor laws with a commitment to enforcing them.