Population: 4,600,000
Capital: Abu Dhabi
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Migrant workers are frequently the victims of serious exploitation. The government has taken some measures to combat abuse, but only the creation of independent trade unions would guarantee the respect of workers' rights. Trade union rights are severely restricted.

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.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: The economic crisis has affected the United Arab Emirates, exacerbating the violations of migrant workers' rights. The construction industry sent thousands of migrants home after building projects were abandoned or suspended. Despite this change however, migrants still officially account for 83.5 % of UAE residents and nearly 99% of the private-sector workforce.

Exploitation of migrant workers: Migrants, mainly from South Asia, make up the majority of the workforce. 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 salaries for many months. Several strikes have broken out in recent years to protest at serious delays in salary payments.

The government has repeatedly announced that the defence of migrant workers' rights is one of its biggest priorities. The most simple solution for guaranteeing the respect of these rights would be to allow the creation of trade unions, but the government prefers to act alone, stepping up labour inspections and checks on the payment of salaries. Migrant workers often risk expulsion if they try to create trade unions.

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, etc. In August, says Human Rights Watch, the Philippines government paid to fly home 44 Filipinas who had been living for months at a shelter. The women were among 127 Filipinas, mostly domestic workers, who fled their workplace after complaining of mistreatment, long working hours, insufficient food, and non-payment of salaries.

Practices akin to forced labour on the "Island of Happiness": In a report published in May, "The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi", Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the serious exploitation of thousands of South Asian migrant workers employed on the development of Saadiyat Island. Several international institutions are planning to open branches on the island – including the Guggenheim, New York University (NYU), and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi).

Human Rights Watch accused labour-supply agencies, construction companies and repressive laws for being responsible for the abuse, which in some cases amounts to forced labour. The report recognises that the government has moved to improve housing conditions and ensure the timely payment of wages in recent years, but adds that it has not done enough to tackle the root causes of abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives an employer virtually complete power over their workers. HRW noted that all the Saadiyat workers it spoke to said they were frightened to complain to the authorities, go on strike or organise trade unions because they thought they would be dismissed and sent home.

Demonstration dispersed: On 31 August, the police and immigration authorities broke up a demonstration by some 2,000 migrant workers who had gone on strike to protest against low pay. They were employed by the building and engineering company Al Habtoor in Dubai.

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