The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a destination and transit country for men and women predominantly from South and Southeast Asia who are subjected to forced labor and forced prostitution. Migrant workers, who comprise more than 90 percent of the UAE’s private sector workforce, are recruited primarily from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Thailand, Republic of Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Philippines; some of these workers face conditions of forced labor in the UAE. Women from some of these countries travel willingly to the UAE to work as domestic servants, secretaries, beauticians, and hotel cleaners, but some are subsequently subjected to conditions indicative of forced labor, including unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. Restrictive sponsorship laws for foreign domestic workers give employers power to control domestic workers’ movements, threaten them with abuse of legal processes, and make them vulnerable to exploitation. Men from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal are recruited to work in the UAE in the construction sector; some are subjected to conditions of forced labor, including debt bondage as they struggle to pay off recruitment fees. In some cases, employers have declared bankruptcy and fled the country, effectively abandoning their employees in conditions vulnerable to further exploitation. Some women from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, East Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco are subjected to forced prostitution in the UAE.
The Government of the United Arab Emirates does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government continued to prosecute and punish sex trafficking offenders, though its efforts to prosecute forced labor offenders were unclear. For the first time, the Ministry of Labor reported statistics on the number of cases of labor complaints it referred for prosecution; however, the statistics were not sufficiently detailed to ascertain whether these cases involved forced labor offenses. The government provided avenues for migrant workers’ complaints through hotlines and mobile units; however, there were no shelters or other types of government services for male trafficking victims. During the reporting period, the government continued to implement victim identification procedures and refer sex trafficking victims to protection services, including government-funded shelters for trafficking victims. The government also continued to implement anti-trafficking awareness campaigns. Nonetheless, labor trafficking victims, especially male victims, remained largely unprotected; while the government made significant efforts in sex trafficking victim identification, it did not make equivalent efforts in identifying victims of forced labor among vulnerable populations. As a result, victims may have been punished for immigration and other violations.
Recommendations for the United Arab Emirates: Significantly increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and punish labor trafficking offenses, and convict and punish trafficking offenders, including recruitment agents and employers who subject workers to forced labor; enact and implement the draft law addressing the protection of domestic workers’ rights; increase victim identification efforts for workers subjected to forced labor, including those apprehended for violations of immigration laws and domestic workers who have fled their employers; provide protection services to all victims of trafficking, including by extending protection to victims of forced labor and male victims on par with victims of forced prostitution; ensure that forced labor trafficking victims are not incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, and treat male and female victims equally; enforce the prohibitions on withholding workers’ passports; reform the sponsorship system so it does not provide excessive power to sponsors or employers in granting and sustaining the legal status of workers; and disaggregate data on labor trafficking offenses from among data on general labor complaints the government receives, including those referred for prosecution.
The government sustained law enforcement efforts against sex trafficking during the reporting period, though it was unclear if it took measures to punish forced labor offenders. Though the Ministry of Labor reported statistics on cases of labor complaints it referred for prosecution, it was unclear whether the government investigated or prosecuted labor trafficking offenses. The UAE prohibits all forms of trafficking under federal law Number 51 of 2006, which prescribes penalties ranging from one year to life in prison as well as fines and deportation. These penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2012, the government referred 47 cases involving 149 alleged sex trafficking offenders for prosecution and convicted 91 sex trafficking offenders under the anti-trafficking law, with sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment. This is an increase from the 37 suspects prosecuted and 19 traffickers convicted in 2011. Despite continuing reports of forced labor in the construction sector and domestic service, the government did not provide sufficient evidence that it adequately prosecuted or convicted any forced labor offenders in 2012. The government did not proactively enforce a prohibition on the widespread withholding of workers’ passports, which greatly contributes to forced labor. The government continued to respond to and investigate workers’ complaints of unpaid wages through a dispute resolution process and the Wages Protection System (WPS), which has reportedly deterred some employers from withholding workers’ wages, though this response was largely limited to administrative remedies, including fines or mediation to recover the wages. Seldom did the government criminally investigate or punish an employer for labor abuses, which could serve as a greater deterrent to these practices.
The government continued to train judicial, law enforcement, and labor officials on human trafficking issues. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) conducted 31 anti-trafficking training courses for over 1,000 police officials in 2012, while 68 officials also participated in multiple international anti-trafficking training courses. In addition, Dubai police held six training courses for its human trafficking unit in identifying victims of trafficking in accordance with international standards, which was attended by immigration officers and the Public Prosecutor’s Office; the majority of courses focused on increasing awareness about labor restrictions and UAE labor laws. The inter-ministerial National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT) continued to use a central database for law enforcement officers working on trafficking cases. The government did not report efforts to investigate or prosecute public officials for alleged complicity in trafficking-related offenses; however, there was no evidence that public officials were complicit in trafficking-related offenses. The government reported actively cooperating with other countries and international agencies on international trafficking investigations during the year. In early 2013, the UAE extradited a suspected trafficker to his home country for prosecution.
The government sustained progress in providing protective services to sex trafficking victims, although it did not demonstrate that it made efforts to improve care for victims of forced labor other than providing avenues to report abuses and dispute-resolution options. Accordingly, the government’s protection efforts failed to sufficiently address the needs of the largest group of trafficking victims within the country. The government continued to fund shelters for female and child victims of sex trafficking and abuse in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al Khaimah, and Sharjah; however, it did not provide shelter services for male victims of trafficking. Shelter facilities provided medical, psychological, legal, educational, and vocational assistance. These shelters assisted 68 female trafficking victims during the reporting period. In 2012, the government reportedly identified and referred 57 sex trafficking victims, including four underage victims, to care facilities. Authorities reported that government officials including the police, as well as houses of worship, community centers, source country embassies, hospitals, and NGO-operated hotlines referred victims to the government’s shelters. Moreover, shelter personnel reported government officials improved their efforts to proactively identify female trafficking victims during the reporting period. Once identified, victims reportedly were not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as prostitution offenses. The MOI distributed a guidebook outlining standard operating procedures for law enforcement personnel to identify victims of both sex and labor trafficking. Despite having standard operating procedures in place, some unidentified victims of sex trafficking may have been penalized through incarceration, fines, or deportation for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked. To attempt to remedy this problem, the government reportedly used a referral process to improve the identification of trafficking victims in detention or prison and referred them to a local shelter; NGOs reported the referral system worked well in practice for sex trafficking victims. Authorities, however, failed to identify any male trafficking victims. The MOI continued its implementation of a system to place suspected trafficking victims in a transitional social support center instead of a detention center until victim identification was completed. In an effort to avoid inflicting additional psychological trauma or making victims feel as if they were being detained, identified sex trafficking victims were assigned female and male police officers dressed in plain clothes and familiar with human trafficking cases when escorted to shelter services. In January 2013, the cabinet approved draft amendments to the 2006 anti-trafficking law, which would provide greater protection for trafficking victims. The amendments remained under review by the Federal National Council and were not enacted at the end of the reporting period. The amendments would provide security protection to victims and witnesses, as well as lawyers and psychotherapy for victims; specify investigation procedures for law enforcement agencies and prosecutors; and protect the privacy and identity of trafficking victims by making legal proceedings confidential and penalizing those who publicize victims’ names or pictures.
While law enforcement officials were trained on victim identification, the government failed to identify potential cases of forced labor; instead, authorities recognized potential forced labor cases as labor violations particularly if potential victims were over the age of 18 and had entered the country voluntarily. As a result, victims of forced labor may have been punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as immigration violations. While the government exempted victims of trafficking who had a pending or ongoing court case against an employer for labor abuses from paying fines accrued for overstaying their visas, the government did not offer victims of labor trafficking—estimated to be the most prevalent form of trafficking in the UAE—shelter, counseling, or immigration relief. The government implemented a short-term amnesty program in December 2012, which allowed workers who overstayed their visas to renew their documents or return to their home countries without penalty; the government issued 61,800 exit permits, and 39,000 of those with exit permits departed the UAE as of February 2013. Domestic workers who fled from their employers often accessed limited assistance at their embassies and consulates, though UAE authorities generally presumed them to be violators of the law, raising concerns that victim identification procedures were not utilized in these cases, unlike in cases of suspected sex trafficking. The government did not actively encourage victims of labor trafficking to participate in investigations or prosecutions, and it typically initiated investigations of forced labor offenses committed against these victims only at victims’ requests. The government encouraged identified victims of sex trafficking, however, to assist in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers by providing victims with shelter, psycho-social services, vocational training, and employment. The government did not provide long-term legal alternatives to the removal of foreign trafficking victims to countries where they faced retribution or hardship. Victims had the option of obtaining work visas and remaining in the UAE by using the shelters’ employment placement programs or completing voluntary vocational education programs.
The government continued to make anti-trafficking prevention efforts a priority during the reporting period. The government and Dubai police conducted anti-trafficking information and education campaigns within the UAE and with source country embassies and consulates and expanded an awareness-raising advertisement campaign in international airports throughout the country. The federal news agency also raised the issue of human trafficking by frequently reporting on trafficking cases in the nation’s top media outlets. The Ministry of Labor (MOL) educated supervisors, inspectors, and other government officials on forced labor indicators and held 180 seminars for foreign workers on labor rights and methods through which to address labor grievances; the ministry also ran a hotline for workers to report labor violations and operated a mobile unit through which officials inspected labor camps and work sites to address labor violations. The NCCHT advertised its anti-trafficking hotline in media outlets in 2012 and made an agreement with local newspapers to advertise trafficking awareness campaigns in 2013; the government promoted transparency in its anti-trafficking efforts by publishing its fifth annual public report on its anti-trafficking measures. Government authorities produced and translated into source country languages pamphlets on workers’ rights and resources for assistance for distribution to migrant workers. A draft law protecting the rights of domestic workers, which the cabinet of ministers approved in January 2012, continued to await presidential approval and subsequent implementation at the end of the reporting period. Additionally, the government continued to regulate recruitment agencies, and the government reported that it did not approve any applications for new recruitment agencies during this reporting period; MOL inspectors made 1,070 follow-up visits to recruitment agencies in this reporting period. In 2012, the cabinet made amendments to the 2010 Cabinet Decision Number 27, which listed various administrative fines for employers violating the labor law, including employers who force workers to pay for recruitment fees without legal documentation. The government sustained its WPS electronic salary-monitoring system intended to ensure workers receive their salaries, with approximately 3.5 million workers and 234,459 companies enrolled at the end of 2012. MOL inspectors forwarded cases of 405 companies involved in violating the labor law for public prosecution. In September 2012, the government sentenced a businessman to pay the equivalent of approximately $1 million in fines for paying his workers’ salaries nine months late. Under the auspices of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, which it chairs, the UAE government remained in negotiation with some labor source countries on the implementation of a system to verify contracts to protect workers from contract substitution and other fraudulent activities. In September 2012, various government departments adopted stricter visa rules, which followed the arrests of foreigners on tourist, visit, and conference visas who allegedly engaged in crimes including human trafficking. The government, however, did not take measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in the UAE or to investigate or prosecute acts of child sex tourism by UAE nationals abroad.