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UAE: Proposed Law to Benefit Domestic Workers

Important Opportunity to Ensure Legislation Meets International Standards

(Beirut) – A proposed United Arab Emirates (UAE) law on domestic workers holds promise for significant improvements in addressing worker abuse. While a newspaper has reported about the law, its contents have not been made public, and a number of the reported provisions raise concerns.

Human Rights Watch urged UAE authorities to review the draft law to ensure that all of its provisions adhere to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and to make the draft public and open for comment. Human Rights Watch has documented the pervasive abuse and mistreatment in the UAE of migrant domestic workers, who work in the country without legislative labor protections.

“The promised provisions of this draft law are an important acknowledgment of the need to protect domestic workers with real laws, and not just the good will of private employers,” said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure that the law complies with all of its obligations to protect domestic workers, including setting maximum work hours and requiring overtime pay, and freedom of movement, particularly on days off from work.”

According to a report on May 2, 2012, in a local UAE newspaper, Gulf News, which said that it had obtained a copy of the draft, the proposed law will provide domestic workers aweekly paid day off, two weeks of paid annual leave, holidays, and 15 paid sick days. Unless UAE authorities make the draft law public, it is impossible to verify the extent of protections the new law will offer or whether it incorporates all of the UAE’s obligations under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

Among reported provisions that raise concern is one that will make a domestic worker who reveals the “secrets” of their employer liable for prosecution and penalties of up to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dirhams (US$27,000). It is not clear whether the law will define “secrets” and whether that definition will exclude criminal behavior by employers.

The draft law also will impose harsh criminal sentences, including imprisonment, on those who “encourage” a domestic worker to quit her job or offer her shelter. It is unclear whether the law will exclude people who shelter domestic workers fleeing from abusive employers.  

It appears that the draft law is silent on working hours and rest breaks, but those issues will reportedly be addressed in regulations. Human Rights Watch urged the UAE to ensure that the draft law and subsequent regulations give domestic workers the same rights guaranteed to other workers, such as limits to hours of work, and overtime pay. The UAE’s current labor law excludes domestic workers.

“The best way to protect domestic workers is to ensure that national labor laws cover them as well, but short of that, the UAE government should ensure that they get the same protections as any other workers in the country,” Varia said. “Employers in the UAE need to recognize that their nannies and housekeepers are workers with rights.”

The UAE’s cabinet approved the domestic workers bill in January; The Federal National Council must still approve the legislation before it is signed into law by President Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Human Rights Watch has documented abuse of many female domestic workers in the UAE, including unpaid wages, food deprivation, long working hours, forced confinement, and physical or sexual abuse. Each year, UAE authorities and the foreign missions of domestic workers’ home countries receive hundreds of complaints of labor abuse and exploitation. Many more cases probably go unreported, given domestic workers’ isolation in private homes, employers’ ability to have workers summarily deported, and migrants’ lack of information about their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The report about the draft law said placement agencies will be required to ensure that domestic workers are informed of the terms and conditions of their employment, such as the nature of work and remuneration, before leaving their country of origin. Once a worker is in the UAE, the law will require the employer to provide decent living conditions that respect the worker’s privacy, the Gulf News article said.

The report also said that the draft law stipulates that if an employer terminates a contract with a migrant domestic worker, the employer must provide the worker with an air ticket home, a month’s remuneration as compensation, and other expenses. However, the worker will bear the cost of travelling home if he or she decides to end the contract.

The employer would also be required to pay all money due to the worker within 10 days of the end of the contract. A worker who completes at least a year of service will be entitled to an end-of-service gratuity amounting to one month’s salary for each year of service.

The report also said that disputes between workers and employers would be referred to Interior Ministry tribunals, which could then refer the matter to the court.

In June, the UAE voted at the ILO to support adoption of the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The convention requires governments that have ratified the convention to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers, including those regulating working hours and overtime compensation. The new standards also oblige governments to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse, and to ensure effective monitoring and enforcement. Human Rights Watch urged the UAE to ratify the convention as soon as possible.

“This draft law could set new benchmarks for domestic labor practices across the Gulf,” Varia said. “The UAE should also lead the way by taking steps to enforce the legislation and with public awareness campaigns about the law’s provisions.”

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