I. Summary

Dubai, with its glittering new skyline of high-rise buildings and its profusion of luxury resorts and real estate, is the most globally emblematic evidence of the economic rise of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).1 As the UAE undergoes one of the largest construction booms in the world, at least half a million migrant construction workers are employed there. Behind the glitter and luxury, the experiences of these migrant workers present a much less attractive picture—of wage exploitation, indebtedness to unscrupulous recruiters, and working conditions that are hazardous to the point of being deadly. UAE federal labor law offers a number of protections, but for migrant construction workers these are largely unenforced.

This Human Rights Watch report addresses the abusive conditions faced by migrant construction workers in the UAE, specifically their exploitation by employers, and the UAE federal government’s failure adequately to address these abuses. Through interviews with workers, government officials, and foreign embassy representatives, as well as a survey of media reports in news and trade journal publications, we highlight what appears to be the most common concern of the construction workers: extremely low wages, typically withheld by employers for a minimum of two months along with their passports, as “security” to keep the worker from quitting. Having incurred large debts to recruitment agencies in their home countries, paid to finance visa and travel costs, notwithstanding the legal prohibition against charging workers such fees, the workers feel compelled to remain in these jobs, despite the low—and in some cases, more protractedly unpaid—wages.

Moreover, while engaged in the hazardous work of constructing high-rises, workers face apparently high rates of injury and death with little assurance that their employers will cover their health care needs. A lack of reliable and comprehensive statistics, including the failure to enforce company reporting requirements about deaths and injuries, is indicative of the entirely deficient capacities of the agencies tasked with investigating labor practices. Human Rights Watch learned that 140 government inspectors were responsible for overseeing the labor practices of more than 240,000 businesses employing migrant workers. Of greater concern is that the same deficiency of oversight may mean an absence of appropriate enforcement of health and safety standards, which may directly account for worker deaths and injuries.

Foreigners constitute 95 percent of the workforce in the UAE, and as of 2005, there were 2,738,000 migrant workers in the country. The roughly 20 percent of migrant workers who are employed in construction are overwhelmingly men from South Asia, many of them illiterate and from impoverished rural communities.

UAE federal labor law provisions apply to both UAE nationals and migrant workers. But the federal government of the UAE has abdicated almost entirely from its responsibility to protect workers’ rights by investigating, prosecuting and remedying abusive and unlawful conduct by employers towards the construction workers. It has failed to enforce UAE law that since 1980 has required the government to implement a minimum wage, evidently choosing to uphold the interests of generally powerful and extremely profitable construction companies over the most basic rights of the migrant worker, who on average receives the equivalent of US$175 a month for his labor on a construction site. This stands in stark contrast to the average per capita income in the UAE of $2,106 a month.

Moreover, the government has refused to allow workers to organize trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers (a deficit compounded by official obstructiveness toward development of a civil society sector that could monitor and bring to light human rights abuses, including abuses against workers). In March 2006, the Ministry of Labor announced that it will institute a law allowing trade unions and collective bargaining by the end of 2006, but as of early October the government has not published any details of this law or of proposed mechanisms for its implementation. Instead, in September the Ministry of Labor issued a resolution banning striking migrant workers from further employment in the country for at least one year (the government had deported workers suspected of organizing strikes on several occasions prior to this resolution).

The plight of migrant construction workers begins in their home countries, where they pay local recruitment agencies exorbitant fees (in the range of $2,000-$3,000) to arrange for their employment contract, obtain an employment visa for the UAE, and purchase their air travel. Typically, they take loans, either directly from the recruitment agents or from a third party, to pay for these fees. Coming up with the monthly repayment becomes the prime focus of the workers, who devote most of their pay during their first two years of employment to servicing the loans. When construction firms immediately withhold a worker’s first two months of wages—which is apparently so common that it is said to be a “custom”—the worker almost immediately falls into arrears on his debt, and additional charges start to accrue. Workers continue in their jobs even when faced with employers who fail to pay wages for much longer periods of time; the only practical alternative open to them is to quit their jobs and return home, debts unpaid.

All of the construction workers interviewed for this report said that their employers confiscated their passports upon their arrival in the UAE, also commonly known to be a “custom” of employers in the UAE to protect against their migrant workers’ absconding. Although UAE courts have ruled that employer confiscation of passports is illegal, employers continue the practice totally unfettered by any concern that the government will enforce the law.

At the same time, construction workers face some of the most hazardous working conditions in the country. The extent of death and injury of migrant construction workers is one of the most troubling, if poorly documented, aspects of the construction sector in the UAE, with government and private sources diverging as to the numbers involved. According to government figures available for Dubai, 34 construction workers died at their work sites in 2004, and 39 in 2005, but based on figures from an independent investigation by a local trade publication, it appears that in 2004 the number of work-site deaths of Indian workers alone was certainly higher than the 34 recorded for all nationalities in Dubai. The low number of construction companies complying with the legal requirement to report cases of workplace death and injury to the government is strongly suggestive of a cover up of their true extent by the construction sector, an allegation made in a number of media reports.

In most other places, a worker faced with hazardous working conditions and unpaid wages, in a free market economy that has an extreme shortage of labor, would move to a different job. But this is not an option for the migrant construction workers of the UAE, who like all other migrant workers in the country are contracted to work only for a specific employer. A worker seeking to move to a different employer is eligible to do so only after working for two years for the present employer and obtaining his or her consent to the move.

In each aspect of the troubled working conditions faced by construction workers in the UAE, the federal government has done little or nothing. It has failed to create adequate mechanisms to investigate, prosecute, penalize, or remedy breaches of its own laws. For example, having made a point of passing a law that bans both local recruitment agencies and local employers from charging workers any fee in connection with the recruitment or employment process, it has made little effort to punish recruiting agents who persist in making these charges, or the employers who are complicit, nor has it acted against the circumvention of the law by UAE employers and recruitment agents who “outsource” charging workers fees to recruitment agents located in source countries. The federal government’s efforts to counter employers’ withholding of wages has been sporadic, at best.

While aggrieved workers are entitled to seek a hearing before the Ministry of Labor, which arbitrates disputes and refers unresolved cases to the judiciary, the availability of arbitration remains a limited option. Government officials, including the minister of labor, have themselves criticized the arbitration process as inadequate and in need of urgent reform. Some of the ministry’s arbitrators have been accused of protecting the interests of construction businesses instead of implementing the provisions of the labor law in a just and fair manner. The ministry apparently keeps no comprehensive information (including statistics) about the cases it arbitrates.

Recourse to the judiciary has also proved to be of limited use to workers. In theory, UAE labor law provides penalties for any violation of its provisions, including non-payment of wages, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to document a single instance where an employer was sanctioned, either by prison time or financial penalties, for failing to pay its workers. Even workers who have succeeded in obtaining judgments against their employers have been unable to enforce them to recover their wages, much less succeed in seeing the employer punished with fines or imprisonment.

Individual emirate governments have made some attempts to address the problems faced by migrant workers on their territory. Following a spike in labor unrest in the previous two years, in 2005 the Dubai government established two agencies, the Permanent Committee for Labor Affairs (PCLA) and a human rights department in the Dubai Police, to arbitrate disputes between workers and their employers. Since their inception, they have handled tens of thousands of cases of labor disputes and have played an important role in collecting unpaid wages. More recently, the government of Abu Dhabi passed a law requiring all companies to provide private medical health insurance for their employees. But such ad hoc remedies are not the proper substitute for remedies applied by federal agencies, with countrywide application.

The federal government needs to take the lead in tackling problems faced by migrant construction workers. It should immediately initiate an independent inquiry into the abuses they experience. It should prohibit UAE companies from doing business with recruitment agencies that flout the ban on charging fees to workers. It should vigorously prosecute violations of UAE labor law, imposing meaningful penalties, and should enforce the labor law’s minimum wage provision. It should improve data collection about migrant workers, and substantially increase labor inspection capacity. The UAE government should also ratify international instruments protecting workers’ and migrant workers’ rights.

Foreign governments have a role to play in ensuring respect for the rights of migrant construction workers in the UAE. The economies of source countries benefit tremendously from the remittances of expatriate workers in the UAE; their governments have a great interest in ensuring that the workers are compensated and treated fairly. They need to clamp down on local recruitment agents who charge workers fees in connection with their employment in the UAE, and they should prohibit the charging of such fees entirely. Their embassies in the UAE should also make proactive efforts to address the needs of their expatriate citizens, providing them with advice and assistance should they encounter difficulties with employers.

The United States, the European Union and Australia also have an important opportunity to urge the UAE to address its failure to protect workers’ rights, as they negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) with the UAE. At a minimum, they should condition any agreement on labor law reform in the UAE that explicitly allows workers to form trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers, and establishes sufficient protections to adequately safeguard these rights. They should also establish as a precondition for any FTA that the UAE adopt the measures necessary to effectively enforce UAE labor law, including by substantially increasing the number of labor inspectors, and demonstrate the efficacy of these measures with specific data on government labor law enforcement activity.

1 The UAE is a federation of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, `Ajman, Al Fujayrah, Dubai, Ra’s al Khaymah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qaywayn.