Labor Rights in the UAE
For the UAE, respect for labor rights is a moral, cultural and economic imperative. As a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Arab Labor Organization and other labor-focused multilateral organizations, the UAE seeks to work transparently and objectively with regard to its international labor obligations. The UAE has ratified nine major ILO conventions related to the rights of workers, and has adopted numerous laws to protect workers’ rights, including in the areas of recruitment, pay, housing and health.
More than seven million foreign workers in the UAE are employed by 260,000 organizations, representing nearly 200 countries. Over 90 percent of the private sector labor force consists of expatriate workers, creating unique challenges for the UAE. The government is constantly working to strengthen its capacity to protect the rights of different communities that contribute to the country’s growth and development, while simultaneously boosting the rule of law and allowing freedoms via lawful processes and institutions.
A series of reforms that took effect in January 2016 focus on improving the rights of temporary workers and providing additional oversight of employment agreements, including:
- Improving the transparency of job terms and employment contracts.
- Clearly defining contract terms and how contracts may be broken, making it easier for workers to switch employers.
- Guaranteeing that relations between workers and employers be governed solely by government-monitored work contracts and the labor law.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization has also launched a “Know Your Rights” campaign, where foreign workers arriving at Dubai International Airport (and soon Abu Dhabi International Airport) in the UAE receive pamphlets informing them of their rights and obligations under their new work contracts. These pamphlets are available in English, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and Malayalam.
Additional improvements were made in January 2013, when Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash announced that the UAE had adopted 100 recommendations, presented in the 2008 and 2012 Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) at the United Nations. The UPR assesses every country’s performance on comprehensively protecting, promoting and fulfilling the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UAE adopted recommendations, including:
- Reforming national laws to conform with the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (recognized as acceding on 21 January 2009).
- Acceding to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (recognized as acceding on 19 March 2012).
- Working to bring the country’s laws into line with provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In its 2012 report, the UPR recognized the UAE’s sweeping reforms aimed at improving working conditions and worker rights, thus reflecting the UAE’s commitment to treat all guest workers with dignity and respect. These include:
- Protecting temporary workers’ right to receive a fair and decent wage for their work.
- Proactive efforts to ensure temporary workers know their rights as well as expedient judicial mechanisms to ensure labor-employer disputes are resolved in a fair and expedient manner.
- Universal temporary worker health insurance.
- Protecting workers’ right to housing and their right to live in an appropriate and safe environment that offers them everything they need for a decent life, and introducing a handbook on general norms for collective housing for workers.
In 2012, in order to ensure that the country is in line with international standards, the UAE reformed its laws related to domestic workers based upon ILO Convention 189 and Recommendation 201. This reform ensures high standards for working conditions and creates contractual standards, while guaranteeing greater protections for both the employer and employee.
The former UAE Ministry of Labor (now Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization) issued a report, “The Protection of the Rights of Workers in the United Arab Emirates,” which is an assessment and blueprint for ongoing action. This report acknowledges the UAE’s commitment to expand capacity to enforce labor laws and fully protect the rights of workers in the country.
Furthermore, the UAE Cabinet has passed a number of reforms to combat abusive labor practices:
- Workers in all labor sectors have rights to transfer employer sponsorship.
- The UAE has created bank guarantees that earmark funds for worker compensation.
- A Wage Protection System (WPS) ensures proper and timely compensation to temporary workers.
- It is illegal for employers to withhold workers’ passports.
- New licenses are being denied for foreign labor brokers and recruiters who cannot demonstrate full compliance with UAE laws.
- Mandatory employment contracts protect the rights of domestic workers in relation to salary, accommodation, healthcare and working hours.
- An investment of over $5 billion has been allocated to ensure that temporary worker accommodations are in line with and exceed international standards.
Recognizing the need for comprehensive government engagement on this issue, various federal ministries are actively involved to tackle labor rights issues. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has worked to strengthen bilateral and international cooperation on manpower issues through memorandums of understanding and updated frameworks for cooperation and partnership between labor-receiving and labor-sending countries. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization produces educational pamphlets and material in a host of languages to ensure that both foreign workers and their employers know the law and their rights.
The UAE is proactively collaborating with the international community to better safeguard labor rights and protect foreign workers from exploitation. The UAE has ratified nine ILO conventions related to protecting the fundamental rights of foreign workers, and is also an active member of the Arab Labor Organization. In 2012, the UAE was elected to serve on a 3-year term to the United Nations Human Rights Council and has since been elected to a second term.
The UAE has negotiated bilateral labor agreements with the governments of nations supplying large numbers of laborers to the UAE economy including agreements with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China and the Philippines. Labor-source nations received approximately $20 billion in annual remittances from the UAE in 2012.
The UAE hosts several international forums as part of its ongoing commitment to improve working conditions within the UAE and raise public awareness around labor rights, including the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, an ongoing platform in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). The Dialogue brings together ministerial-level leadership from both labor-source and labor-receiving nations and aims to create a regional framework for regulating labor rights and migration.
Goals of the Dialogue include:
- Developing and sharing knowledge on labor market trends, skills profiles, workers and remittance policies and flows.
- Building capacity for more effective harmonizing of labor supply and demand.
- Preventing illegal recruitment and promoting welfare and protection measures for contractual workers.
- Developing a structure for a comprehensive approach to managing the entire cycle of temporary contractual work that fosters the common interest of countries of origin and destination.
- Strengthening regional frameworks.
Enforcement is critical in all areas of protecting the rights of workers. Ensuring the fair and on-time payment of workers is a particular priority of labor policy enforcement:
- The UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization requires prospective workers to sign a standard employment offer in their home country that is in turn filed with the Ministry before the issuance of a work permit.
- In 2015, the then Ministry of Labor (now Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization) announced that contracts could be broken by both workers and employers under certain circumstances, thereby extending workers additional flexibility and benefits with their employment options.
- The UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization requires firms to provide audited statements demonstrating that wages have been paid.
- The UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization has a large body of labor inspectors that conduct random inspections every day.
- In 2014, the then Ministry of Labor (now Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization) conducted more than 288,670 inspections within the private sector as part of the Ministry’s commitment towards providing safer workplaces, meeting occupational health and safety standards and ensuring that housing for laborers is satisfactory.
- In 2014, inspectors detected serious offenses in 479 facilities, which were referred for public prosecution.
- In 2014, the then Ministry of Labor (now Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization) referred 188 wage disputes for legal remedy.
- A 24-hour toll-free hotline allows workers to file complaints, check the status of applications and ask questions.