UAE labour relations are a model for Gulf

During 2006 and 2007, the UAE pursued active bilateral co-operation with labour exporting countries by signing pacts with them (Dennis B Mallari)

The UAE is home to 3,113,000 foreign workers employed by approximately 260,000 firms, according to a detailed labour report for 2007 released by the Ministry of Labour.

The report also highlighted respect for labour rights in the UAE detailing efforts to combat ill practices as the demand for manpower intensifies in the country.

However, the report is silent on the three-plus-three issue of labour contracts that was raised during the last GCC summit in Bahrain. The three-plus-three law proposes a residency cap of six years for unskilled labourers. If the law is passed, unskilled workers will come to work in a GCC country with a three-year labour contract which can only be renewed once.

As a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Arab Labour Organisation and other labour-focused multilateral organisations, the UAE deals transparently and objectively with all its international labour obligations and views reasoned and rational internal and external criticism as constructive and helpful, says the report.

"The UAE has made great progress legislating and enforcing the rights of its labour force. These rights affect every aspect of workers' lives and have been carefully researched and measured against international standards.

"Rapid growth and labour rights are not incompatible and the UAE is working at every level of government and the private sector to show that its progress in both is evolving into a model for the region and elsewhere. Both the private and public sectors in the UAE recognise that aggressive labour rights laws and the enforcement of those laws are not only the right things to do but are also necessary for continued economic and political success," said the report.

Top executives and CEOs that Emirates Business spoke with agreed with the fact that the country is doing its best to improve labour rights. Ajay Gupta, CEO of Westar Properties, told Emirates Business: "The government is looking at various aspects of labour rights and many new things are happening to protect the rights of workers here."

The government has increased its efforts to protect labour rights but there are many challenges that the country still faces posed by the economic boom and increasing demographic structure changes, said the report.

"I quite agree with that. There are challenges that we face. Even though developments are positive there is still more that needs to be done," said Gupta.

The UAE is home to an exceptionally large number of expatriate workers with culturally diverse backgrounds, who account for more than 90 per cent of the private sector workforce. These numbers seem to be on the rise as the country still faces a shortage of labourers, especially in the booming construction industry.

"We have witnessed a shortage of labourers, especially after the amnesty. People from the Subcontinent who have gone back are not willing to come back [on their previous] conditions, so we have to look at other markets such as Vietnam," said the Chief Executive Officer of a construction company who did not wish to be named.

To cater to this growing demand for labourers, many unscrupulous agencies had been involved in an illegal labour trade.

The government has come down hard on such entities with initiatives such as the amnesty programmes and has signed agreements with many countries that provide manpower to the UAE, and international organisations, to make sure workers' rights are protected. During 2006 and 2007, the UAE pursued active bilateral co-operation with labour exporting countries by signing MoUs with several Asian countries including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand and the Philippines.

The purpose of the bilateral agreements was to encourage these countries to tackle the problems of illegal recruitment agencies. These practices included charging workers illegal side fees and providing false information about workers to employers in the UAE.

As part of their agreements with the UAE, labour-source countries affirmed the unrestricted and unhampered right of workers to repatriate their savings to whichever nation they choose. In 2006, these annual remittances from the UAE were estimated to be around $16 billion (Dh59bn), the report said.

The Ministry of Labour also cancelled new licences for foreign labour brokers and recruiters who failed to fully comply with the law. Besides, the government is also combating labour practices that place the rights of workers at risk and has adopted a number of key initiatives to protect labourers.

For example, the UAE Cabinet has officially extended the right of workers to transfer employer sponsorship to all labour sectors in order to facilitate job movement and has created bank guarantees that earmark funds for worker compensation.

The Minister of the Interior had earlier made it illegal for employers to withhold workers' passports. Certain employers had continued this practice, despite efforts by the authorities to enforce the prohibition.

The government has also worked on all fronts to ensure a life of dignity for all workers. It has issued binding directives to improve the lives of guest workers throughout the region. The official directives call for adequate housing – consistent with international standards and conventions – medical services, security resources, and health and safety provisions.

Safe transportation of workers to labour sites and the formation of new federal labour courts to fast-track labour dispute resolutions – with electronic links for streamlined communication between the courts and the Ministry of Labour – have been welcomed as moves to protect labour rights.

And workers who have been cheated on wages or simply not paid for more than two months being granted immediate release from their employers' sponsorships if they so choose are just some of the many things that have been done to protect the interest of the workers. The UAE Government has also taken major steps to reduce the practice of using minors as camel jockeys. The government and Unicef agreed in April 2007 to establish a second and expanded phase of their rehabilitation programme, which will now continue until May 2009.

As a follow-up measure, the UAE has committed about Dh29m, which will help in country-based interventions to tackle trafficking by focusing on the establishment of monitoring mechanisms to prevent children formerly involved in camel racing from re-entering hazardous or exploitative labour, mentioned the report.

For maids and servants, the government has proceeded to draft a law that governs the relationship between domestic help and household employers. This law will be guided by international standards and practices and is one of the first of its kind in the region.

"The new initiative will particularly benefit women, who are a key concern of the UAE as part of the state's obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw). Prior to this, in April 2006, the UAE enforced mandatory employment contracts to protect the rights of domestic workers in relation to salary, accommodation, healthcare and working hours," added the report.

Besides the various legislation and enforcement work carried out by the government, the Dubai Police's Human Rights Department runs a victim care programme. It provides psychological, emotional, and legal assistance for victims of abuse, who can call the social services division or the social services section of police stations.

"A new charitable body, the Dubai Women's and Children's Foundation, was established in July 2007 to provide a safe environment, assistance and rehabilitation for those at the receiving end of physical and psychological abuse and human rights violations. The structure of this pilot project is being studied by various government committees, which could result in such shelters getting replicated in other parts of the country," said the report.