Migrant Workers’ Rights
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are known as a luxurious holiday destination, boasting glamorous hotels and a glittering new skyline full of modern skyscrapers. What most people do not realise is that all the glitz and glam of these cities was built on the backs of migrant workers, who are exploited and abused in the most extreme ways, in some cases even amounting to modern day slavery. At least 900,000 migrant construction workers are working in exploitative and hazardous conditions in the UAE. Of the UAE’s total population of 9.3 million, over 5 million are low-paid migrant workers. Migrant workers are not only employed in construction but also in other service jobs such as domestic work, making up 95% of the total private work force.
The plight of migrant workers begins in their home countries, where they pay extremely high fees to recruitment agents in order to secure a job in the UAE. Once they have reached the Emirates, their passports get taken away by their employers, leaving them stranded in the country and trapped in abusive working conditions. Under the kafala system, a sponsor system where the employer pays for the visas of their workers, migrant workers are especially vulnerable as their employers have complete control over them. For example, the withholding of wages, sometimes for months, is a common practice. Additionally, the enormous debts migrant workers incur to pay for the staggering recruitment fees leaves them no chance to negotiate the conditions of their contract but instead are forced to accept the terms dictated by their employer. Migrant workers often do not know the content of their contracts, either due to illiteracy or because the contracts are written in Arabic and English, languages that many migrant workers do not speak. If refusing to sign the contract, migrant workers are threatened to be sent back.
The UAE Labour Law from 1980 sets out the terms of recruitment of workers, regulates maximum working hours, and provides for annual leave and overtime. It also includes industrial safety and health care regulations as well as rules for compensation in case of work-related injury or death. As set out by this law, cases of injury or disease have to be reported to the Ministry of Labour and properly investigated by the police. Taking recruitment fees is also prohibited by the labour law, however the practice still continues. For any violations of these articles, the law stipulates penalties in fines or imprisonment. Despite all of these regulations, employers continue to mistreat their workers, breaking one law after the other, and the government does little to prosecute these breaches. In a report on migrant workers in the UAE for example, Human Rights Watch said they did not find a single instance where an employer has been sanctioned for not paying his workers.
Since 1980, the government has consistently failed to implement the minimum wage prescribed by the Labour Law. A construction worker earns as less as $175 a month on average, compared to the average national income of $2,029 a month.
Trade unions are illegal in the UAE and there is a ban on labour strikes, making it hard for workers to demand the enforcement of their rights. Workers who unionise or strike are often arbitrarily detained, and consequently lose their jobs and are deported. Without any institution representing their interests, workers have no chance of communicating their grievances to government bodies. Forming and joining trade unions to protect the workers’ interests is a fundamental human right, therefore the UAE legislation is violating international human rights law. In addition to that, all members of the International Labour Organisation, including the UAE, are obligated to allow freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Until today, the UAE has not signed the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
As the UAE economy is entirely dependent on migrant workers, a comprehensive set of laws protecting their rights and a serious effort by the government to enforce these laws is direly needed.
Saadiyat Island, the “Island of Happiness”, is one of the UAE’s newest projects to attract tourists. The 27 square kilometre island lies 500 meters off Abu Dhabi’s coast. Aside from hotels and private residencies, it hosts six different cultural institutions, including outposts of the Guggenheim museum and the Louvre. Thousands of migrant workers are employed on Saadiyat island, labouring under extreme heat and humidity for 12 hours a day. Many of them live in work camps, in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Workers cannot leave the island except for Friday, their only day off.
Many of the workers discover after signing the contract that their wages are between 25 and 40% less than what the recruitment agencies promised them and that the amount of overtime pay or paid holidays are greatly reduced. Sometimes workers are even given different jobs than what they contracted the recruitment agent in their home country for altogether. Employers often illegally deduct significant portions of the wages, claiming to reimburse food costs with the amount of money they take. Because of the high interest on loans many workers take in order to pay back their recruitment fees, working in the UAE increases worker’s debts instead of enabling them to save money and send it back to their families.
Although illegal in the UAE and by international law, employers confiscate their workers’ passports, thereby violating their right to freedom of movement. Even for funerals and weddings, employers refuse to hand out the passports to their workers so that they can visit their families. These horrendous conditions amount to forced labour, which is prohibited by the International Labour Organisation.
- Report by Human Rights Watch: “Migrant workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island in the UAE” (2015)