Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2017, 08:56 GMT

2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Arab Emirates

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Arab Emirates, 20 November 2008, available at: [accessed 18 October 2017]
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: 4,400,000
Capital: Abu Dhabi
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Thousands of migrant workers in the construction sector were arrested or deported following many strikes. The new draft labour law does not give the right to join unions or to collective bargaining. A new law establishes an employment contract for domestic servants, and measures have been announced to improve migrant workers' wages and offer injury compensation.

Trade union rights in law

Trade unions and collective bargaining prohibited: The current Labour Law does not permit the formation of trade unions, although workers are allowed to associate for the furtherance of common goals and interests.

The law does not recognise the right to collective bargaining. Wages are fixed in individual contracts that are reviewed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. The Immigration Ministry performs this role for domestic staff, as most are foreign nationals.

Workers' representatives have some say in settling disputes, through complaints to the Ministry of Labour or, if the Ministry is unable to mediate a solution within ten days, through joint Conciliation Committees, chaired by the Ministry. However, workers do not have the right to stop work while a dispute is being resolved

Some sectors not covered: Labour legislation does not cover public service workers, domestic workers or anyone working in the agricultural sector. Employees in the latter two sectors have great difficulty in negotiating employment contracts and are particularly exposed in the event of a dispute with their employer.

Draft law falls far short of ILO standards: It had been hoped that the new Labour Law would correct some of these failings.

However, the draft labour law released for comment on the Internet in March 2007 falls far short of ILO norms.

It does not allow workers to form or join independent trade unions and does not give them the right to bargaining collectively. It also punishes striking workers. It fails to protect migrant workers, by failing to incorporate a 2001 ruling that prohibited employers from confiscating employees' passports.

It discriminates against women workers by limiting their access to nighttime employment and heavy work and treats them as dependent on men.

Strikes banned in the public sector: Public sector workers and national security guards are not allowed to strike.

The law does not provide for the right to strike for other workers but does not forbid it either. The Labour Minister is allowed to intervene to end a strike and to force workers to go back to work.

Migrants banned from striking: Migrants who take part in a strike or provoke one "without a valid reason" can be banned from working for a year, and if they are absent from work for more than seven days without a valid reason, their work permits can be cancelled and they can be deported.

Export processing zones (EPZs): Although the EPZs are supposed to comply with the Labour Law, the Ministry of Labour does not regulate them. Each zone has its own labour department to deal with workers' issues.

Employment contracts for foreign domestic workers: In a positive move, in April the government established a standard contract for foreign domestic workers that abolished commission fees by recruitment agencies and provides for decent living and working conditions.

Government to improve pay and working conditions: In response to the many construction workers' strikes during the year, and amid concerns about labour shortages, at the end of 2007 the government created a salary review committee made up of labour ministry officials and construction company representatives. This could lead to the creation of a minimum wage.

The government is also introducing legislation to offer compensation for workers injured at work.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Background: Strikes and demonstrations occurred almost daily in the private sector, involving thousands of migrant workers in the construction industry protesting about non-payment of wages and hazardous working conditions.

Goodwill gestures by the authorities: Despite making arrests and deportations (see below), the authorities have established two bodies, the Permanent Committee for Labour Affairs and the police authorities' Human Rights Department. These apparently receive thousands of complaints and enable employees to receive back pay. However, government announcements that it intended to bring in reforms such as a special Labour Court and recruiting a large number of Labour Inspectors have come to nothing.

Migrant workers exploited: Migrants, most of whom come from South Asia, account for between 85 and 95 per cent of the workforce. They are bound by the sponsor system that puts them at the mercy of their employers and can be deported if they try to organise trade unions. They are generally hired for three to five year periods and work in very harsh conditions. Problems over unpaid wages persist.

Workers deported for striking: During the year there were many reports of overseas workers deported for striking.

In March, 200 Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers employed by ETA Ascon, who went on strike and rioted to demand an increase in their basic salary and a return plane ticket every two years, were deported and banned from re-entering the country.

In August, 24 Asian construction workers, out of a total of 500 who went on strike for better wages, were deported. "Workers must know that protesting for higher wages is against the law," said Maher al-Obaid from the Employment Ministry.

At the end of October the authorities arrested and threatened to deport 4,000 Asian workers who were involved in various incidents to demand higher wages. They were accused of blocking the road and throwing stones at vehicles in the export processing zone of Jebel Ali. Anti-riot forces used water cannons against the strikers.

Despite these threats, the protests continued, but after the weekend most of the strikers were released. Finally 159 workers were deported and received a lifetime ban from working in the country.

On 10 November more than 200 workers from the Arabtec Construction Company, which is building the world's tallest skyscraper, were deported for going on strike. This occurred at the end of a 10-day strike by 40,000 Asian constructions workers protesting at low salaries, soaring living costs and poor conditions.

As a result of the strike, construction workers were awarded a 20% pay rise.

Government uses the army to end strike: On 21 July the government sent in the army after 3,000 Indian workers rioted at Ras al Khaimah camp to protest against poor living conditions and low wages. The workers were held in three prisons across the UAE.

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