UAE reforms 'harsh' labour laws

UAE reforms 'harsh' labour laws
Analysis: It is hoped that reforms announced this week will reduce employers' power over foreign workers, allowing them to change employers and preventing abuse of the recruitment process.
4 min read
01 October, 2015
The law reduces the power sponsors have over 'unskilled' foreign workers [Getty]

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has announced a reform of its labour laws to be enforced from 1 January, aimed at curbing abuse and protecting the rights of millions of foreign workers.

The UAE and other Gulf countries have been strongly criticised by international labour and human rights organisations for abuses of expatriate labourers, most of whom come from India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Emirati Labour Minister Saqr Ghubash said that the reforms would prevent workers being deceived.

"We want to close the door on those who trick the simple worker," he said.

The kafala (sponsorship) system used to employ unskilled foreign labour has been criticised for putting too much power in the hands of employers. Sponsored employees are dependent on their sponsors for their presence in the emirates and subject to whatever conditions or whims their employers place on them.

We want to close the door on those who trick the simple worker
- Labour Minister Saqr Ghubash

The new measures will allow foreign workers to terminate their contract and change their employer, once they receive authorisation from the labour ministry.

The reforms will also prevent workers being lured to the UAE by a generous offer and forced to sign a different contract for lower wages and weaker guarantees when they arrive, by granting offer letters the status of a legal employment contract.

The offers must be in the employee's language and legally registered, to avoid manipulation and possible abuse.

Ghubash said job offers must contain a clause forbidding the employer from holding onto the identity papers of his employee.

He said the UAE would take steps that would get rid of "all the practices that were associated with kafala", al-Jazeera reported.

However, past efforts to improve the lot of unskilled foreign workers have been less than successful.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that workers in New York University's Abu Dhabi campus on Saadiyat Island were being subjected to serious abuses, including forced labour.

The quasi-governmental developers responsible for the project addressed the issue by creating codes of conduct to ensure the workers received their basic rights, but in May last year the New York Times reported that the workers were still "living in squalor and being paid a pittance".

Domestic workers unaffected

The reforms announced on Tuesday apply to the emirates' 4.5 million foreign workers registered with the labour ministry, but not the millions of domestic workers from abroad - whose cases are handled by the Interior Ministry.

Emiratis themselves account for barely ten percent of the nation's 10 million population - and are far outnumbered by the country's foreign workforce.

Domestic workers such as maids face abuse and even violence, but have little opportunity to change their employment or challenge their employers.

Flora Ritah Zawedde Nanateza, a 33-year-old woman from Uganda working as a maid in Dubai, was imprisoned for leaving her sponsor's house in search of alternative employment, Migrant Rights reported.

The Indonesian government announced it would ban Indonesian women from working as housemaids in 21 Middle Eastern countries

She died two weeks later from a heart attack she suffered in prison.

She had worked as a maid for more than a year but had found life in her sponsor's home unbearable.

A year earlier, an autopsy conducted in a Ugandan hospital on the body of another maid who died of a "heart attack" in Dubai found torture marks on her body - and ruled out a heart attack as a cause of death.

In June, the Indonesian government announced it would ban Indonesian women from working as housemaids in 21 Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, the Khaleej Times reported.

Muhammad Hanif Dhakiri, Indonesian minister of manpower and transmigration, said the ban was because "there are no standardised labour regulations that bind the said countries, to the detriment of migrant workers", according to CNN.

There are 80,000 Indonesians currently living in the UAE, many of them as maids.


Criticism of Qatar over the conditions of guest workers has been especially strident, as news of pervasive abuses emerged during the tiny emirate's massive building boom to prepare for the 2022 football World Cup.

Qatar has taken steps to improve the working conditions of construction workers after being criticised internationally for reportedly high numbers of deaths.

The tiny emirate recently announced a significant reform to the rights of unskilled migrant labourers to guarantee they get paid correctly and on time.

However, questions have been raised about the way this system, which was due to start in August but delayed to November, will actually work in practice.

Amnesty International's Mustafa Qadri welcomed the announcement of the new system but cautioned it was "only one small step on the long road towards ending chronic labour abuse in Qatar".

The Qatari Cabinet has also backed draft legislation that would significantly reform its kafala system, regulating the entry, exit and residency of guest workers. The draft law, however, still requires final approval - and faces plenty of opposition.