Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2018, 14:34 GMT

2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - United Arab Emirates

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - United Arab Emirates, 6 June 2012, available at: [accessed 21 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 4,600,000
Capital: Abu Dhabi

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
100 (Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (1951))
105 (Abolition of Forced Labour (1957))
111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Arrests: 70

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher


The law does not allow trade unions to exist or negotiate freely. The boards of civil society associations were dissolved and five activists were convicted for criticising the government. Seventy Bangladeshi workers were deported for going on strike.


The United Arab Emirates did not experience the same wave of protests as other countries in the Middle East, but the government was determined to show it would not tolerate dissent. Five civil society activists were arrested for criticising government policy and political leaders and were sentenced, after an unfair trial, to between two and three years in prison. They were released the following day after a presidential pardon.

National elections were held in September to choose half the members of the Federal National Council, a consultative body with no legislative power (the other half of its members are appointed by the leaders of the seven emirates).

Trade union rights in law

There is not much room in the law for trade union activities. The current Labour Law does not permit trade unions, although workers are allowed to associate for the furtherance of common goals and interests. Public sector workers, as well as domestic workers and anyone working in the agricultural sector, are not covered by the labour legislation, and the EPZs have their own departments to deal with workers' issues.

The right to collective bargaining is not recognised in law, however workers' representatives have some say in settling disputes. All wages are fixed in individual contracts that are reviewed by the authorities. Furthermore, the right to strike is not specifically recognised, and the Labour Minister has the power to intervene to end a strike and force workers to go back to work. Public sector workers, security guards and migrant workers are not allowed to strike, and migrants who participate in or provoke a strike "without a valid reason" can be banned from working for a year and can even have their work permits cancelled and be deported.

A draft Labour Law released for comments in 2007 does not improve the trade union rights situation in any significant way.

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

Slow justice: In March the daily paper "The National" reported that 400 workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh living in workers' accommodation in Al Faya in the desert to the east of Abu Dhabi, worked for up to ten months without being paid. Some just gave up and went home without receiving their money, complaining that it took months for the courts to deal with their case. Others were too frightened to complain, because their work visa had expired and they risked fines of up to 10,000 Dirhams (2,700 US dollars).

Exploitation of migrant workers:

Non-nationals account for over 88.5% of the population, and many of them are migrant workers. They are often prey to extreme exploitation: unpaid wages, excessively long working hours, passports confiscated by the employer, changes upon arrival to the contract they signed before leaving, etc. As domestic work is not covered by the labour legislation, domestic workers are even more vulnerable than migrants in other sectors. Many say they have suffered physical and sexual abuse, in addition to the exploitation migrants are usually exposed to.

As migrant workers do not have the right to join a union or go on strike, they don't have the means to denounce the exploitation they suffer. Those who protest risk prison and deportation.

The pay protection system that has progressively been set in place since 2009 obliges companies to pay their workers' wages via electronic bank transfer, that the authorities are able to verify. This measure has not been enough to prevent delays in the payment of wages however, notably because the Labour Ministry's resources are far too meagre in face of the number of migrants.

A sponsorship system ("kafala") continues to link migrant workers' visas to an employer or "guarantor", even though the terms were relaxed in 2011 : at the end of a two year contract, the authorities allow unskilled workers to change job without a certificate of non-objection from their employer. The under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour has stated that if the clauses of the contract are breached, or if the worker is not paid, the Minister can end the contract.


70 Bangladeshis deported after a strike: In January some 3,000 employees of the building giant Arabtec went on strike to demand an increase in their monthly salary, which was as low as 650 dirhams (175 US dollars) in some cases. Seventy Bangladeshi workers, accused of instigating the strike, were arrested and, according to their country's authorities, deported to Dubai.

Tough sanctions for teachers and lawyers associations: On 6 April, four civil society organisations signed an appeal for greater democracy in the country. For two of them, sanctions were soon to follow. On 17 April, a decree by the Minister of Social Affairs, Mariam Mohammed Khalfan Al Roumi, dissolved the board of directors of the Jurists Association of the United Arab Emirates, a civic rights organisation. They were due to hold a general assembly to elect a new board, but in October the Minister prolonged the suspension for six months. On 2 May the board of the Teachers' Association, which co-signed the appeal, was also dissolved by the Minister. This association, which has more than 280 members, represents and defends teachers' rights in the Emirates.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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