Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 13:16 GMT

2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Arab Emirates

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Arab Emirates, 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 16 January 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 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Migrant workers continue to be the victims of serious exploitation, while the government still refuses to allow independent trade unions. Children of just 10 years old are still being exploited as jockeys. Trade union rights are heavily restricted.


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.


Background: The country is governed by a Supreme Council composed of the emirs of the seven Emirates. A Federal National Council was elected by a 6,689 member electoral college in 2006, but it only has an advisory role. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few families. The judicial system does little to inspire confidence. On 10 January, for example, a tribunal cleared Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of the country's leading ruling family, of charges of torture, despite video evidence showing him beating an Afghan cereal trader, Mohammed Shah Poor, using whips, a cattle prod and planks of wood covered with nails. On 29 March, however, a court in Sharjah condemned 17 Indians to death for the murder of a Pakistani man, although several human rights organisations reported that their confessions had been extracted under torture.

Exploitation of migrant workers: Migrants, mainly from South Asia, make up the majority of the workforce. There are about 3.3 million migrant workers, accounting for 70% of the population. Many are employed in the construction industry and domestic work. Among the most frequent problems encountered by migrant workers are the confiscation of their passports, the lack of health and safety measures and the non-payment of their salaries for many months. They risk expulsion if they try to create trade unions.

The government has repeatedly announced that the defence of migrant workers' rights is one of its biggest priorities. In June 2009 the United Arab Emirates adopted compulsory minimum housing standards in order to improve migrant workers' living conditions. Employers have five years to meet these standards. In the same year the government introduced a salary protection mechanism which obliges enterprises to designate an agent responsible for paying their employees. The government is notified when the agent receives the salaries and ensures payment. There are loopholes in the system however.

Growing number of suicides in the construction industry: The downturn in Dubai's construction sector continued. Hundreds of migrants found themselves trapped in camps for months, with no electricity or running water, after being dismissed. The employers fled the United Arab Emirates in the wake of the crisis, leaving months of salaries unpaid. Many dismissed migrant workers did not have enough money to get home and owed large sums of money to the recruitment agencies that brought them to the Emirates. Suicides among these workers increased in 2010.

Little improvement for domestic workers: In 2007, the government introduced a standard contract for foreign domestic workers that abolished commission fees by recruitment agencies and provided for decent living and working conditions. In practice, however, many migrant domestic workers suffer the same types of serious abuse faced in other countries in the region: confinement in the employers' home, physical and sexual abuse, unpaid salaries, lack of food, excessive working hours, etc.

Children still used as jockeys: In February the NGO AntiSlavery International again found that children, of barely 10 years of age, were being used as jockeys in a camel race in Abu Dhabi, even though the law bans the use of jockeys under 18. The children came from South Asia. Police officers and a high ranking member of the royal family attended the race.

100 workers detained following strike: At the beginning of May nearly 100 Vietnamese construction workers were detained by police following a protest demonstration outside the Labour Ministry. They were demanding payment of three to four months' salary arrears by their employer, the South Korean company Sungwon.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

Search Refworld