(Beirut) – A United Arab Emirates ministerial decree that takes effect in January 2016 could help protect low-paid migrant workers from a practice that can contribute to forced labor. It is the first measure of its kind in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, but it lacks details on implementation and enforcement and does not apply to domestic workers.
Migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have told researchers and journalists that when they arrive in these countries, they are forced to sign contracts that pay less than promised in contracts they signed before they left their own countries to take the jobs. This contract substitution can make workers vulnerable to forced labor, especially if workers have taken on debts to pay recruitment fees. The new law passed on September 27, 2015.
“A major complaint of migrant workers in the UAE is usually that they’re not being paid what they were promised, so UAE authorities deserve credit if this law ends contract substitution,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Its success will depend on whether workers will have access to complaint mechanisms when employers don’t abide by the new regulations.”
Article 1 of Ministerial Decree 764 of 2015 states that, “tentative approval to admit a foreign worker for the purpose of employment in the UAE cannot be granted until an employment offer that conforms with the Standard Employment Contract is presented to and duly signed by the worker.”
Employers must use Labor Ministry standard employment contracts, and workers can only be registered for employment after signing such a contract, which “captures exactly the terms of the employment offer.” A standard employment contract in the UAE contains information on pay, date and duration of the contract, and the nature of the work to be performed.
Implementation and enforcement will be central to the new law’s effectiveness, Human Rights Watch said. Workers should be able to retain copies of the standard employment contract they sign in their countries of origin, contracts should be written in a language they understand, and they should be able to access a grievance mechanism in the UAE that can resolve complaints quickly and penalize offenders.
Labor Ministry decrees number 765 and 766, outlining the rules for terminating employment and granting work permits to new employees, will also take effect in January. These rules will partly govern how the kafala visa-sponsorship system operates in the UAE. Kafala systems, which operate across GCC countries, tie foreign workers’ residence and work permits to their employers and restrict their ability to change employers.
Decree 765 states that workers on a “renewed term contract” can unilaterally terminate their employment, but only if they effectively buy out the contract. If the parties have not agreed on the sum, the decree sets it at three months’ wages. Workers on their first contract with their UAE employer do not appear to benefit from this clause. The decree also states that a work relationship shall be de facto terminated if an employer “has failed to meet contractual or legal obligations to the worker (as in, but not limited to, the non-payment of wages for a period exceeding 60 days);” a business has been inactive for two months; a labor court finds in favor of a worker in a case relating to arbitrary or early termination; or the unlawful denial of benefits, including end-of-service benefits.
This provision of decree 765 is similar to the terms of Ministerial Decision No. 1186 from 2010, which allows a worker to transfer employers when the work contract expires, without employer approval. It also allows workers to change their employer before a contract expires, whether an initial or renewed contract, without penalty or their employer’s permission if their employer violates “legal or consensual” obligations; if the employer has “not exercised activity for more than two months,” as verified by a report from the Labor Ministry’s inspections department; if a court rules in favor of the employee in a case referred by the Labor Ministry; or if the employer terminates or neglects to renew the worker’s contract.
The ministerial decision does not provide a comprehensive list of the “legal or consensual” obligations that give an employee the right to change employer, but it provides one example – “non-payment of wages for sixty days.” Prior to that law change, workers had no legal authority to change employers before the end of their contracts, but the UAE has not released any figures on how many workers have used the new law to change employers.
A major problem is that 2010 ministerial decree and the new Ministry of Labor decrees do not apply to domestic workers, as they are explicitly excluded from the UAE labor law.
“These changes are another step in the right direction, but domestic workers should not be left behind,” Stork said. “Many domestic workers face forced labor and other extreme abuse, and the UAE should give them the same rights and protections as other workers.”