Indian laborers work in Dubai on December 2, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - President Pratibha Devisingh Patil of India should address the systemic abuse of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates and press for urgent labor reforms during an official visit that begins November 22, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Indian president. As many as 1.2 million Indians live in the Emirates, at least half of whom are migrant workers.

In its letter, Human Rights Watch outlined abuses frequently faced by Indians and other migrant workers employed in low-wage jobs in the UAE, such as unpaid wages, indebtedness from recruitment fees that create conditions of forced labor, confiscation of passports, hazardous working conditions, and, at times, physical abuse.

"President Patil has a duty to press for the rights of the 1.2 million Indians in the UAE," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "For too long, the Indian government has simply treated these workers as sources of remittance income, with little attention to the abuse and exploitation they endure."

The letter calls on the Indian government to advocate enforcement of measures to prevent the practices of burdening workers with exploitative recruitment fees, confiscating their passports, and withholding wages. Human Rights Watch also urged Patil to seek stronger protection for domestic workers, who remain particularly vulnerable to abuse as they remain isolated in private homes and excluded from UAE labor laws.

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on the pervasive abuses of migrant workers in the UAE in both a 2006 report, "Building Towers, Cheating Workers," and a 2009 report, "The Island of Happiness." In 2010, Human Rights Watch also conducted follow-up research with interviews of Indian construction workers and manual laborers in Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi, which revealed that these workers continue to pay burdensome recruitment fees and remain unable to change or quit jobs when they wish to do so.