VI. UAE Labor Law

The UAE’s Labor Law No. 8 of 1980 is a federal law regulating labor relations throughout the country.107 It is regularly amended by ministerial resolutions, as issued by the Ministry of Labor and approved by the Council of Ministers. Its provisions apply to both UAE nationals and migrant workers. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for implementing the federal labor law, but each emirate can also set up its own agencies to enforce the federal labor law, as is done in the emirate of Dubai.

The labor law sets out the terms of recruitment of workers by UAE employers, regulates maximum working hours, and provides for annual leave and overtime. Employment of persons below the age of 15 years old is forbidden.108 The law also forbids the employment of “young persons” at night in industrial jobs and bans employment of “young persons” in “any job that is dangerous, arduous or detrimental to health,” as defined by the ministry of labor.109

The labor law includes articles on industrial safety and health care for workers. It requires employers to protect workers against the hazards of occupational injuries and diseases by “providing appropriate safety measures.”110 The law requires employers to provide medical professionals “to carry out general medical examinations, at regular intervals of not more than six months.”111 Employers are also required to provide workers with medical care facilities.112

The law sets the terms for workers’ compensation in cases of work-related accident, disease or death. As already noted, it requires employers to report instances of work-related injuries and occupational diseases to the police and to the Ministry of Labor. It requires the police to carry out a prompt investigation and issue a report to determine “whether the accident was work-related, deliberate, or the result of gross misconduct of the worker.”113

Employers are required to pay for the medical treatment of workers injured at the workplace.114 In cases where the injured worker is unable to return to work, the law requires the employer to pay the worker his full pay for a period of his treatment up to six months. If the worker requires treatment beyond six months, the employer is required to pay one-half of his wages until the worker fully recovers, is declared disabled, or dies.115 If the worker dies due to a work-related injury or occupational disease, his family shall be entitled to compensation equal to two years of his basic wage.116 A worker who suffers permanent total disability is entitled to a similar compensation by his employer as in the case of death.117

The law does not, however, require employers to maintain insurance for compensation or medical care. Most recently, in a positive move, the government of Abu Dhabi passed a law requiring all companies that have more than 1,000 employees to provide private medical health insurance for their employees, starting July 2006. Companies with fewer than 1,000 employees will be required to implement this law as of January 2007.

The law stipulates penalties for any violation. Article 181 requires “a penalty of imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months and/or a fine not less than three thousand Dirhams [$833] but not exceeding ten thousand Dirhams [$2,778]” on anyone who violates any of the labor law’s provisions, executive regulations or orders.118

UAE law also establishes a mechanism for the resolution of disputes between workers and employers, namely the Ministry of Labor’s arbitration board. It requires the government to set a minimum wage, but this provision has never been implemented. The shortcomings of the dispute resolution mechanisms and the failure to implement a minimum wage, as well as the law’s failure to recognize the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively and the explicit ban on labor strikes, are discussed in detail below.

Government Mechanisms Addressing Labor Disputes

While UAE law governing issues such as workplace health and safety, workers’ compensation, child labor, hours of work and leave time are admirable when taken at face value, there is little evidence of its enforcement in favor of workers’ rights. What is also apparent in the cases examined by Human Rights Watch, as well as those documented in news reports, is that recourse to the government or the judiciary is of limited use to workers. Aggrieved workers are entitled to seek a hearing before the Ministry of Labor, which arbitrates disputes and refers unresolved cases to the judiciary, but the availability of arbitration remains a limited option.

The labor law grants the officials and inspectors of the Ministry of Labor “the status of judicial officers for the purposes of the application of this Law and its executive regulations and orders,”119 and the law requires the Ministry of Labor to set up an arbitration board to resolve conflicts between workers and their employers.120 When a labor dispute arises, a worker must notify the Ministry of Labor in writing. A ministry official will ask the employer and workers to resolve their dispute through direct negotiations.121 If direct negotiations fail, then an official at the Ministry of Labor will arbitrate the case.122 The arbitrator has 30 days to resolve the conflict. If he does not succeed, the case is then referred to an “arbitration committee” within the Ministry.123 If the committee fails to resolve the dispute, the case is referred to the judiciary. Workers cannot directly file cases with the judiciary.

UAE government officials have criticized the existing arbitration procedure as inadequate and unfair. The criticism encompasses both bureaucratic lapses and deliberate bias and wrongdoing.

Mohammad Saleh Al Madani, acting head of the Civil Cases Unit of Dubai Court, has criticized the Ministry of Labor’s lack of strategy towards labor rights protections and lack of proper record keeping about employers. He was quoted in a Dubai newspaper in January 2006 as saying:

The Ministry of Labor has no coordination with the Dubai courts or an action plan to protect laborers’ rights. It also lacks information about the companies’ status. In most of the cases the court finds that the companies involved in the dispute have shut down or have no properties or assets. Even the Ministry itself does not have important documents… If the Ministry has all relevant documents, this will facilitate the court’s work and help expedite the proceedings more effectively. Even when the ministry submits the laborer’s files, we find many important documents missing, such as labor contracts.124

An unnamed Ministry of Labor official was quoted by the same newspaper a month earlier as saying:

The lack of transparency in the department was apparent with the legal researchers—officials who help find solutions to labor dispute—withholding information about employees’ rights, and instead suggesting measures that force laborers to succumb to the employers’ will.125

The Ministry of Labor’s own website suggests the strong pressure workers come under to settle their cases with their employers:“Should you have any grievance, try to solve it amicably with the concerned parties at your Company. Should you fail to solve any grievance at your Company, you have to put the issue up to the Concerned Labour Department & you should follow their advice to settle same.”126

The minister of labor, Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi, has acknowledged the ministry’s shortcomings in resolving labor disputes, telling a newspaper in late 2005:

I have proof of prejudice in settling disputes that were reported to me personally by workers who had filed complaints to the department and received biased treatment. I had to handle these complaints and grant justice to those complainants. I am aware of the problems at the department. I know there is harassment and prejudice against some complainants. I will announce this with evidence at the right time.127

Issues such as wages and working conditions might not rise to the level of disputes needing formal arbitration if there were greater labor inspection capacities. As already noted, recognizing that the existing 140 government labor inspectors were insufficient, the Ministry of Labor in September 2006 announced that it would hire 260 more by the end of the year, and planned to have 1,000 inspectors within 18 months. It remains to be seen whether this plan will be fully implemented in a timely fashion, and whether it will result in a meaningful and efficient application of the labor law.

Overall, there is a sense that the government considers labor problems a private affair. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, the head of the Work Permit Department in the Ministry of Labor, Abdulla Saeed Saif Bin Suloom Alfalasi, placed the blame for labor abuses on foreign private businesses, saying, “In many cases it is expat employers who are violating the workers rights… We have set up a hotline for workers to report complaints. What more can we do? We are not angels.”128 Furthermore, both public officials and media reports have noted with concern the appearance of a conflict of interest among government officials who are responsible for implementing the labor law.129 Some government officials who work in the Ministry of Labor and the Immigration Administration are themselves sponsors and employers of migrant workers. In April 2005 Minister Al Kaabi issued a decision limiting the business interests of the ministry’s employees in sponsoring and employing migrant workers to 10 businesses.130

The federal government maintains no comprehensive data (including statistics) on labor dispute cases lodged with government agencies.131 Therefore, it remains unknown what percentage of cases the government successfully resolves, whether through arbitration or judicial decision, the extent to which decisions favor workers or employers, or the extent to which employers are punished and decisions against them enforced. Writing to the minister of labor in July 2006, Human Rights Watch reiterated the requests we made for this information during a meeting with ministry officials in Dubai in February. The reply received in late September did not concretely address our request.

Mohammad Saleh Al Madani, of the Civil Cases Unit of Dubai Court, criticized the Ministry of Labor’s lack of statistics:

Though there are a huge number of labor disputes, there is neither  any statistical record nor any data on the nature of those disputes. On an average, the cases filed annually with each of the five labor departments are in the average of 200 to 300. The labor cases ruled upon by the courts pertained to refusal to pay salaries, end of service benefits, tickets and suspensions without notification among others.132

In Dubai, the local government has introduced two additional mechanisms to address the rising tide of labor disputes. The Dubai Police has established a Human Rights Department that attempts to address labor disputes through mediation, but it has no binding legal powers to enforce its decisions. Aref Mohammed Baqer, deputy director of the department, told Human Rights Watch, “We first note the workers’ grievances and then contact the employer. We call them to a joint meeting and inform the workers of their rights. If our arbitration fails, then we refer the case to the Ministry of Labor.”133 Between November and December 2005, the Dubai Police Human Rights Department reportedly collected the equivalent of more than $55 million in unpaid wages from 61 companies. Mohammed Saeed Al Mur, head of the department, reported to the media,

Since the launch of the workers complaint service, the department has succeeded in solving the problems of 25,312 workers between November 2005 and January 2006. Only in three months’ time, the department has managed to persuade 61 companies in Dubai to make the payment of delayed salaries amounting to 201,149,753 AED [$55,874,931].134

The government of Dubai also established the Permanent Committee on Labor Affairs (PCLA) in March 2005 to mediate labor disputes. The committee is composed of representatives from the Immigration Administration, the Ministry of Labor, the Dubai Municipality, the Economic Department, and the Dubai Police. Authorities at the PCLA told Human Rights Watch that they resolved nearly 20,000 cases involving unpaid wages between March and December of 2005. According to Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, an official with the PCLA, 19,249 workers registered complaints with the committee between March and December 2005. During this period, committee inspectors also visited 36 labor camps and found 75 percent of them to be well below government standards.135

Because of the somewhat haphazard nature of these agencies and their unclear authority under the law, there is no clear distinction among the respective roles of the Ministry of Labor and these two Dubai agencies. Whichever agency a worker first approaches to launch a complaint will arbitrate the case. And while the Dubai initiatives are laudable, they should not substitute for appropriate and more assertive responses at the federal level. All told, there is no comprehensive data available on the total number of cases brought in front of these three bodies. Thus, the extent of labor problems in the UAE, the extent to which laborers can and do resort to these bodies for help with their problems, and the extent of federal government enforcement of labor laws and punishment of employers remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Notably, 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 wages to its workers. As detailed in some of the cases above, even workers who succeed in obtaining judgments against their employers are unable to enforce those judgments to recover their wages, much less succeed in seeing them punished with fines or imprisonment. Even when the Ministry of Labor gets involved directly in a dispute, there is no assurance that an employer will actually fulfill its obligation to pay the back wages, or will not merely resume withholding wages all over again, as in the case of Al Hamed Company, discussed above.

Presumably to protect workers from the non-payment of wages, the government requires employers to post bank guarantees as part of their application to obtain a permit to sponsor migrant workers.136 The amount of the guarantees depends on the number of migrant workers sponsored by the company. UAE law authorizes, but does not require, the Ministry of Labor to liquidate a company’s bank guarantee in favor of its employees “if the employer fails to honor the rights of any of his employees.”137 Although there is much evidence of construction companies withholding employee wages, Human Rights Watch could not verify any public record of companies whose bank guarantees were liquidated by the authorities in favor of unpaid workers. If the only penalty for non-payment of wages is an order to pay wages without any finance charge or interest or fee, sometimes enforced, sometimes not, then there is little deterrent, and no penalty, for companies that choose to routinely withhold wages.

Deficiencies in the Law

Lack of a minimum wage

Construction workers in the UAE earn abysmal sums ranging from monthly wages of 390 AED ($106) to 900 AED ($250). Although the 1980 UAE Labor Law explicitly requires the Ministry of Labor to institute a minimum wage, it has never been put into practice. According to Article 63 of the Labor Law:

The minimum wage and the cost-of-living index payable to workers in general or in a particular area or occupation shall be fixed by a federal decree based on a proposal to be made by the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs and approved by the Council of Ministers.

The Minister shall put forward his proposal for determining, or reviewing, the minimum wage, after consulting the competent authorities and the labor organizations of workers and employers, if any, and after having reference to studies and tables of fluctuations in the cost of living indices drawn up by the competent authorities in the State, to ensure that the said minima are sufficient to meet the worker’s basic needs and guarantee his livelihood.138

In its July 2006 letter Human Rights Watch asked the minister of labor why this law has never been implemented. The September reply from the UAE government not address this question.

The lack of a minimum wage has been highly relevant to the episodes of strikes and worker riots mentioned above (see section “Law Wages”). The Belgian Company Besix, responding to the May 2006 strike by more than 8,000 of its workers, posted notes in its labor camps saying “salaries would be increased according to government instructions.”139 A Besix official was quoted in the local media as saying: “We’re considering raising their salaries but it’s more of a government problem than a contractor problem. The government should fix a minimum wage.”140

Absence of trade unions and collective bargaining

UAE law does not recognize the right of workers to organize and form trade unions. The labor law also forbids strikes. The 1980 labor law allows for the employers to suspend workers temporarily without pay in case of a strike.141 In a recent ministerial resolution directed only at migrant workers, the federal government banned migrant workers from employment in the country for at least one year in case of “an illegal strike or its instigation.”142

Because workers are not allowed to organize and form unions, there are no institutions representing their interests. As is widely recognized, unions are the most important vehicle for workers to communicate grievances with relevant government bodies, to negotiate with employers, and to seek structural reforms.

The minister of labor has indicated that the government will enact a law permitting trade union activities by the end of this year.143 Human Rights Watch in its letter to the minister of July 14, 2006, asked for details of the proposed legislation. The reply received from the UAE government at the end of September did not address this.

International human rights law guarantees workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, including the right to organize unions for the protection of their interests.

As a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UAE is obligated to permit workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. The ILO has declared that all member states must promote and protect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively as a “fundamental” labor principle, specifically stating that all members are obligated to allow freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, even if, like the UAE, they have not ratified the key ILO conventions governing those rights (see below).

There exists an urgent need for labor unions in the UAE to engage the government and the private sector on behalf of workers. In the course of our research, it became evident that lack of organized representation is a major obstacle to addressing the exploitation of construction workers documented in this report. To improve the situation of migrant workers in the UAE, it is essential that the government recognize their right to form trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike.

107 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations. The Council of Ministers, whose members are appointed by the president of the UAE, issues federal laws by decree. The president and vice president are elected by the Federal Supreme Council, which is composed of the rulers of each emirate.

108 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, art. 20.

109 The law does not explicitly define “young persons.” Since the law bans employment of persons under the age of 15, “young persons” presumably refers to persons above the age of 15 and under the age of 18.

110 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, art. 91.

111 Ibid., art. 95.

112 Ibid., art. 96.

113 Ibid., art. 142.

114 Ibid., art. 144.

115 Ibid., art. 145.

116 Ibid., art. 149.

117 Ibid., art. 151.

118 Ibid.

119 Ibid., art. 188.

120 Ibid.

121 Ministerial Resolution 307 (2003), (accessed August 14, 2006), art. 2.

122 Ibid., art. 4.

123 Ibid., art. 13.

124 Amira Agarib, “Labor Ministry under fire over labor disputes,” Khaleej Times, January 12, 2006.

125 Wael Yousef, “Al Kaabi’s expose ‘disappoints’ Labor Ministry officials,” Khaleej Times, December 12, 2005.

126 Instructions to Foreign Laborers, General Directives, (accessed September 6, 2006).

127 “Bias in many cases in settling disputes, says labor minister,” Khaleej Times, December 11, 2005.

128 Human Rights Watch interview with Abdulla Saeed Saif Bin Suloom Alfalasi, February 22, 2006.

129 Diaa Hadid, “Ministry employees to face business limits,” Gulf News, April 14, 2005.

130 Ibid.

131 Abdulla Saeed Saif Bin Suloom Alfalasi, manager of the Work Permit Department at the Ministry of Labor, told Human Rights Watch that he did not have any statistics available on labor disputes. Human Rights Watch interview with Abdulla Saeed Saif Bin Suloom Alfalasi, Dubai, February 22, 2006.

132 Agarib, “Labor Ministry under fire over labor disputes,” Khaleej Times.

133 Human Rights Watch interview with Maj. Aref Mohammad Baqer, February 25, 2006.

134 “Over 25,000 workers get pending salaries,” Khaleej Times, February 4, 2006.

135 Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, February 21, 2006.

136 Ministerial Resolution 218 for 2001, On The Executive Regulations to The Council of Ministers; and Resolution 14 for 2001, Regarding the Bank Guarantee Referred to Under Council of Ministers Resolution 14 for 1999, (accessed September 6, 2006).

137 Ministerial Resolution 218, (accessed September 25, 2006), article 13.

138 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, art. 63.

139 Giuffrida and Egbert, “Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labor,” Construction Week.

140 Conrad Egbert, “10,000 Besix workers down tools,” Construction Week, May 20, 2006.

141 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, art. 112.

142 Ministerial Resolution 707 of 2006 Regarding Rules and Regulations of Employment in the Country (UAE) for Non-Citizens, September 6, 2006, art. 13.,

143 Jim Krane, “UAE to give workers right to form unions,” Associated Press, March 30, 2006.