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Foreign laborers work to build the Jumeirah Beach luxury apartment complex. © 2006 Abbas/Magnum Photos

As the United Arab Emirates experiences one of the world’s largest construction booms, its government has failed to stop employers from seriously abusing the rights of the country’s half million migrant construction workers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

On Tuesday the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, ordered the minister of labor, Dr. Ali bin Abdullah Al-Ka’abi, to enforce the country’s labor laws and immediately institute a series of reforms based on Human Rights Watch’s recommendations.

“The prime minister’s decree to protect worker’s rights is a welcome step in the right direction,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But unless the government starts to hold employers accountable for breaking the law, the UAE’s colossal new skyscrapers will be known for monumental labor violations.”

Based on extensive interviews with workers, government officials and business representatives, the 71-page report, “Building Towers, Cheating Workers,” documents serious abuses of construction workers by employers in the UAE. These abuses include unpaid or extremely low wages, several years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions that result in apparently high rates of death and injury.

After a string of highly publicized strikes and labor demonstrations earlier this year, the UAE government promised to respect workers’ rights by legalizing trade unions and vigorously enforcing the country’s labor laws, which are relatively good on paper. But the Human Rights Watch report demonstrates that the government has still failed to do so. Human Rights Watch found no public record of an employer in the construction industry forced to pay a substantial fine or suffer any criminal liability even when found guilty of violating labor law.

The UAE is currently undergoing a dramatic construction boom, and nearly all of the more than 500,000 construction workers in the country are migrants, mostly from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The country’s 2,738,000 migrant workers make up 95% of the country’s workforce.
“Hundreds of gleaming towers have risen on the backs of migrants working in highly exploitative conditions,” said Whitson.

On October 27, Human Rights Watch communicated its findings and recommendations to the UAE government in a letter. Shortly thereafter, on November 7, the prime minister ordered the labor minister to immediately institute reforms based on Human Rights Watch’s recommendations. Specifically, the prime minister’s decree directed the labor minister to set up a special labor court to resolve labor disputes, increase the number of government inspectors, require employers to provide health insurance for low-skilled workers, and develop mandatory mechanisms enabling workers to collect unpaid wages. Human Rights Watch welcomed this swift response and inherent acknowledgement of the problem of abuse.

Employers based in the UAE import foreign construction workers through recruiting agencies located both inside and outside of the UAE. Recruiting agencies unlawfully force workers, rather than their employers, to pay US$2,000-3,000 for travel, visas, government fees and the recruiters’ own services. To pay these fees, all of the 60 workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they had accepted loans from their recruiting agents at steep monthly interest rates as high as 10%. As a result, workers start out burdened with huge debts and use the most of their meager wages to repay these loans during the first two to three years of their employment.

While UAE law explicitly prohibits domestic recruiting agents from charging workers for such expenses, both recruiting agents and employers openly flout this law. Recruiters in the UAE told Human Rights Watch that they act as conduits between the workers and employers by extracting fees from the workers and handing them over to employers, who in turn submit them to the government as their own payment for official licenses.

“The government says that workers are free to leave the UAE if they’re unhappy,” said Whitson. “But with thousands of dollars of debt hanging over their heads and no options for a new job, the reality is these workers don’t have much choice.”

Human Rights Watch found that employers routinely withhold construction workers’ wages for a minimum of two months along with their passports, as “security” to keep them from quitting. The report also documented cases where employers have withheld wages for even more extended periods. Workers are desperate for their wages, but are trapped due to their debts; and UAE law prohibits a worker from obtaining a new job without their old employer’s consent. While the government in many cases has forced companies to pay back wages, there is no public record of a single case where it has penalized an employer with fines or imprisonment for failing to pay wages, or any other breaches of the labor law.

The wages of construction workers, which range from $106 to $250 per month, contrast starkly with the national average wage of $2,106 per month. Many recent workers’ protests have centered on demands for better wages. Although the UAE Labor Law of 1980 requires the government to implement a minimum wage, it has failed to do so for the past 26 years.

“The UAE government needs to implement criminal and financial penalties against employers and recruiting agents who continue to charge workers recruiting and travel fees and withhold their wages and passports,” said Whitson.

Hundreds of migrant construction workers die each year in the UAE under unexplained circumstances. The government can account only for a few of these deaths, primarily because it appears not to enforce its own laws requiring employers to report worksite deaths and injuries. In 2004 alone, the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh returned the bodies of 880 construction workers back to their home countries. Yet the Dubai emirate, the only emirate to keep a count of migrant worker deaths, recorded only 34 construction deaths that year, based on reports from only six companies.

The government does not allow workers to form organizations or trade unions. As a result, there are no institutional mechanisms for advocating on behalf of workers’ rights. During the past two years, thousands of migrant construction workers have resorted to public demonstrations. In March, the government promised to legalize trade unions by the end of the year, but instead, in September it passed a new law banning labor strikes and announcing that it would deport striking workers.

“We hope that the government’s new promise to enforce its labor laws does not share the same fate as its broken promise to legalize trade unions,” said Whitson

Human Rights Watch called on the UAE, as a member of the International Labor Organization, to implement and respect fundamental workers’ rights, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining and the right to strike. Human Rights Watch urged the government to implement its existing laws to protect and promote workers’ rights.

In addition, Human Rights Watch urged the governments of the United States, European Union countries and Australia, which are currently engaged in free trade negotiations with the UAE, to ensure that respect for workers’ fundamental rights is a cornerstone of any forthcoming agreements.

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