United Arab Emirates
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law neither provides for the right to organize, strike, or bargain collectively nor permits workers to form or join unions. The labor law forbids strikes by public-sector employees, security guards, and migrant workers. The law does not entirely prohibit strikes in the private sector but allows an employer to suspend an employee for striking. In the private sector, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, formerly the Labor Ministry, must approve and register individual employment contracts. The labor law does not apply to public-sector employees, agricultural workers, or most workers in export processing zones. Domestic workers fall under a separate labor law but are regulated by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. Persons with a claim to refugee status but who lacked legal residency status, including those with either short-term visitor visas or expired visas, were generally not eligible for employment.
Private-sector employees may file collective employment dispute complaints with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, which by law acts as mediator between the parties. Employees may then file unresolved disputes within the labor court system, which forwards disputes to a conciliation council. Public-sector employees may file an administrative grievance or a case in a civil court to address a labor-related dispute or complaint. Administrative remedies are available for labor complaints, and authorities commonly applied them to resolve issues such as delayed wage payments, unpaid overtime, or substandard housing.
All foreign workers have the right to file labor-related grievances with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. Reports on the length of administrative procedures varied, with some workers citing both speedy and delayed processes. The ministry sometimes intervened in foreign workers’ disputes with employers and helped negotiate private settlements. The law allows employers to request the government to cancel the work permit of, and deport for up to one year, any foreign worker on a work-sponsored residency visa for unexcused absences of more than seven consecutive days or for participating in a strike. While the law does not explicitly delineate labor strikes as grounds for deportation, the law prohibits unauthorized demonstrations or the expression of opinions deemed false, incitant, or hurtful to the country’s public image.
Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, and religious-related issues.
The government generally enforced labor laws. Professional associations were not independent, and authorities had broad powers to interfere in their activities. For example, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization had to license and approve professional associations, which were required to receive government approval for international affiliations and travel by members. The government granted some professional associations with majority citizen membership a limited ability to raise work-related issues, petition the government for redress, and file grievances with the government.
In Dubai the CDA regulates and provides licensing services to nonprofit civil society organizations and associations that organize ongoing social, cultural, artistic, or entertainment activities. In Dubai all voluntary organizations and individual volunteers are required to register with the CDA within six months. In addition, all voluntary activities require a CDA permit, but there are no prescribed penalties for noncompliance.
Foreign workers may belong to local professional associations; however, they do not have voting rights and may not serve on association boards. Apart from these professional associations, in a few instances some foreign workers came together to negotiate with their employers on issues such as housing conditions, nonpayment of wages, and working conditions.
The threat of deportation discouraged noncitizens from expressing work-related grievances. Nonetheless, occasional protests and strikes took place. The government did not always punish workers for nonviolent protests or strikes, but it dispersed such protests and sometimes deported noncitizen participants. In response to the government-mandated closing of many businesses as part of its COVID-19 pandemic response, the government changed employment contract regulations to give employers the ability to reduce wages or place workers on unpaid leave with the workers’ consent. There were instances of employers exploiting these changes illegally to reduce salaries or furlough workers without their consent.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law or impose penalties that were commensurate, particularly in the domestic-worker sector.
The government took steps to prevent forced labor through continued implementation of the Wages Protection System (WPS) (see section 7.e.). The government enforced fines for employers who entered incorrect information into the WPS, did not pay workers for more than 60 days, or made workers sign documents falsely attesting to receipt of benefits. According to local media reporting, some firms withheld ATM cards from employees, withdrawing the money and paying the employee 35 to 40 percent less than the mandated salary. As a result of COVID-19-related restrictions and cost-saving measures, workers reported forced leave without pay or nonpayment of wages.
According to a December 2019 statement issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, one million low-skilled laborers benefited from instruction on labor laws and regulations offered by its 34 Tawjeeh centers specializing in providing governmental services and orientation on labor laws. In April authorities stated that in 2019 the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department carried out awareness campaigns in labor camps targeting 266,000 workers.
The domestic worker law that regulates domestic workers’ contracts, rights and privileges, prohibitions, and recruitment agencies was implemented throughout the year. In January the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization announced that to enable employers to pay domestic workers a living wage, residents sponsoring a domestic worker must earn at least 25,000 AED ($6,810) per month, a change from the previous salary minimum of 6,000 AED ($1,630).
It was relatively common for employers to subject migrant domestic workers, and to a lesser degree, construction and other manual labor workers, to conditions equivalent to forced labor. Contract substitution remained a problem. Workers experienced nonpayment of wages, unpaid overtime, failure to grant legally required time off, withholding of passports, threats, and in some cases psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. There were reports employers raped or sexually assaulted foreign domestic workers. These cases rarely went to court, and those that did led to few convictions. In a few cases physical abuses led to death. Local newspapers reported on court cases involving violence committed against maids and other domestic workers.
In violation of the law, employers routinely held employees’ passports, thus restricting their freedom of movement and ability to leave the country or change jobs. In labor camps it was common practice for passports to be kept in a central secure location, accessible with 24 or 48 hours’ notice. In most cases individuals reported they were able to obtain documents without difficulty when needed, but this was not always the case. There were media reports that employees were coerced to surrender their passports for “safekeeping” and sign documentation that the surrender was voluntary. With domestic employees, passport withholding frequently occurred, and enforcement against this practice was weak.
Some employers forced foreign workers in the domestic and agricultural sectors to compensate them for hiring expenses such as visa fees, health exams, and insurance, which the law requires employers to pay, by withholding wages or having these costs deducted from their contracted salary. Some employers did not pay their employees contracted wages even after they satisfied these “debts.”
There were other reports from community leaders that employers would refuse to apply for a residency visa for their domestic workers, rendering them undocumented and thus vulnerable to exploitation.
Although charging workers recruitment fees was illegal, workers in both the corporate and domestic sectors often borrowed money to pay recruiting fees in their home countries, and as a result they spent most of their salaries trying to repay home-country labor recruiters or lenders. These debts limited workers’ options to leave a job and sometimes trapped them in exploitive work conditions. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization oversees recruitment of domestic workers. In 2018 the ministry established Tadbeer recruitment centers, one-stop shops for recruitment agencies to register their services, workers to undergo interviews and receive training, and visas and identification documents to be distributed. Persons reported problems obtaining proper documentation and processing for domestic workers through Tadbeer Centers, including difficulties with processing basic services, salary payment, and passport retention.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor, including child trafficking, forced labor, and sexual exploitation. The law also prohibits employment of persons younger than 15 and includes special provisions regarding children ages 15 to 18. The law, however, excludes agricultural work, leaving underage workers in these sectors unprotected. Under the law governing domestic workers, 18 is the minimum age for legal work. The law allows issuance of work permits for 12- to 18-year-old persons, specifically for gaining work experience and under specific rules. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization is responsible for enforcing the regulations and generally did so effectively.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The antidiscrimination law prohibits all forms of discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, or race, although without specific reference to employment. Penalties include fines and prison terms of six months to 10 years. The law had been applied only in cases of religious discrimination, including one incident that occurred in a work environment.
Various departments within the Ministries of Human Resources and Emiratization, Education, and Community Development are responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, and the government enforced these rights in employment, housing, and entitlement programs. Enforcement was effective for jobs in the public sector, and the government made efforts to encourage private-sector hiring of persons with disabilities. Some emirates and the federal government included statements in their human resources regulations emphasizing priority for hiring citizens with disabilities in the public sector and actively encouraged the hiring of all persons with disabilities. In September 2019 the Dubai government released an eight-page pamphlet explaining the government’s equal opportunity policy and encouraging employers to hire persons with disabilities. Public-sector employers provided reasonable accommodations, defined broadly, for employees with disabilities. The employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector remained a challenge due to a lack of training and opportunities and also societal discrimination.
In September 2019 the government amended the labor law to prohibit discrimination, which prejudices equal opportunity employment, equal access to jobs, and continuity of employment. The law does not specify what types of discrimination are prohibited. The government also reformed laws that prohibited women from working during certain hours, or in certain occupations, eliminating legal restrictions. In September 2019 a national decree introduced new rules to the labor laws to promote equal opportunities and access to the labor market, prohibit discrimination based on gender in the workplace, and repeal articles prohibiting women from working during the hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and in hazardous, strenuous, or physically harmful jobs. The decree prohibits discrimination in jobs with the same functions and prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee based on pregnancy. Termination of service is considered arbitrary under the labor law. In August the UAE became the first country in the region to offer paid parental leave after it amended the country’s federal labor law to grant private-sector employees five days of paid paternal leave. Public-sector employees receive three days of paternal leave. In August the president also issued a decree granting women equal pay for “work of equal value.” Work of “equal value” is to be determined by rules and regulations approved by the cabinet based on recommendations from Ministries of Human Resources and Emiratization. Women who worked in the private sector, and especially nonnationals, however, regularly did not receive equal benefits and reportedly faced discrimination in promotions and equality of wages. The domestic worker law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, political opinion, national, or social origin. Nevertheless, job advertisements requesting applications only from certain nationalities were common and not regulated. In free zones individualized laws govern employment requirements. For example, in the Dubai International Financial Center, employers may not discriminate against any person based on sex, marital status, race, national identity, religion, or disability.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
There is no national minimum wage. There was very limited information on average domestic, agricultural, or construction worker salaries or on public-sector salaries. In some sectors minimum wages were determined by workers’ nationality and years of experience. According to TAMM, an online government services platform, Tadbeer Centers charged higher recruitment and sponsorship transfer fees for domestic workers of certain nationalities, including Indonesia and the Philippines.
The law prescribes a 48-hour workweek and paid annual holidays. The law states daily working hours must not exceed eight hours in day or night shifts, and it provides for overtime pay to employees working more than eight hours in a 24-hour period, with the exception of those employed in trade, hotels, cafeterias, security, domestic work, and other jobs as decided by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization.
Government occupational health and safety standards require that employers provide employees with a safe work and living environment, including minimum rest periods and limits on the number of hours worked, depending on the nature of the work. For example, the law mandates a two-and-one-half-hour midday work break between June 15 and September 15, for laborers who work in exposed open areas, such as construction sites. Companies are required to make water, vitamins, supplements, and shelter available to all outdoor workers during the summer months to meet health and safety requirements. Employers who do not comply are subject to fines and suspension of operations. The government may exempt companies from the midday work break if the company cannot postpone the project for emergency or technical reasons. Such projects include laying asphalt or concrete and repairing damaged water pipes, gas lines, or electrical lines.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization was responsible for enforcing laws governing acceptable conditions of work for workers in professional and semiskilled job categories but did not do so in all sectors, including the informal sector. To monitor the private sector, the ministry had active departments for inspection, occupational safety, combating human trafficking, and wage protection. Although workplace inspection is permissible but not required under the law, oversight of the large domestic worker population, often the most vulnerable to abuse, remained a challenge, due to significant cultural barriers to entering and inspecting private households.
Workers in agriculture and other categories overseen by the Ministry of Interior come under a different regulatory regime. These workers are not covered by private- and public-sector labor law, but they have some legal protections regarding working hours, overtime, timeliness of wage payments, paid leave, health care, and the provision of adequate housing; however, enforcement of these rules was often weak. As a result, these workers were more vulnerable to unacceptable work conditions.
There was no information available on the informal economy, legal enforcement within this sector, or an estimate of its size; however, anecdotal reports indicated it was common for individuals to enter the country on a nonwork visa and join the informal job sector, subjecting them to exploitative conditions.
Sailors faced particular difficulty remedying grievances against employers. In 2018 the Federal Authority for Land and Maritime Transport announced that ship owners operating in the country’s ports were required to carry insurance contracts for all sailors on board and mandated that sailors must be deported to their home countries in case of abandonment by the ship owner. Ship owners often declare bankruptcy but refuse to sell their ships, leaving their crews cut off from both pay and regular resupply. As a result, crew members often remain on board their ships even under substandard conditions. In June 2019 the Coast Guard seized the ship MV Hoot off the coast of Khor Fakkan after it refueled in midsea, a crime under UAE law, allegedly at the instruction of the ship’s owner. In March media reports called attention to the sailors’ complaints, including unpaid salaries, harsh living conditions, lack of fresh water, and no access to medical treatment. According to local media, the ship’s owner asked the sailors to accept half of what they were owed in unpaid wages, with some sailors making as little as 6,000 AED ($1,630) a month. The crew continues to remain on board the vessel pending the issuance of a verdict in Fujairah Court.
To provide for the continuity of ship crew changes complicated by COVID-19, in August the Federal Transport Authority issued a circular opening crew changes to all ports across the country. Previously, crew changes were possible only in Dubai. The decision sought to relieve crew whose time onboard extended past the limits delineated under maritime conventions.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization conducted inspections of labor camps and workplaces such as construction sites. The government also routinely fined employers for violating the midday break rule and published compliance statistics. The penalties were not commensurate with those of fraud crimes, which carried larger fines and imprisonment. The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department and Dubai Courts employed buses as mobile courts, which traveled to labor camps to allow workers to register legal complaints. Abu Dhabi’s mobile courtroom was used for cases involving large groups or those who encountered difficulties attending court. In September 2019 the mobile courtroom settled a labor dispute, presented to the Abu Dhabi Labor Court, allowing more than 1,000 workers to recover 10 million dirhams in unpaid wages from their employer. In April the Executive Committee of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council announced the formation of the Abu Dhabi Workers Committee mandated with assessing compliance with legal statutes governing contracts, workers’ rights, salary payments and protections, and the provision of suitable living arrangements.
The government took action to address wage payment issues. Its implementation of the WPS and fines for noncompliance discouraged employers from withholding salaries to foreign workers under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. The WPS, an electronic salary transfer system, requires private institutions employing more than 100 employees to pay workers via approved banks, exchange bureaus, and other financial institutions, to assure timely and full payment of agreed wages, within 10 days of payment due date. Under the law, after 16 days of nonpayment, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization freezes issuance of new work permits to the employer. If the nonpayment persists past 29 days, the ministry refers the case to the labor courts; after 60 days, a fine of 5,000 AED ($1,360) per unpaid worker is imposed, up to a maximum of 50,000 AED ($13,600). For companies employing fewer than 100 employees, the freezes, fines, and court referrals apply only after 60 days of nonpayment. The ministry monitored these payments electronically. The WPS, however, did not apply to foreign workers under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, such agricultural workers, or to domestic laborers.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization conducted site visits to monitor the payment of overtime. Violations resulted in fines and in many cases a suspension of permits to hire new workers.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization continued efforts to provide for adequate health standards and safe food and facilities in labor camps. A ministerial decree requires that employers with 50 or more employees must provide low-salaried workers (those earning less than 2,000 AED ($544) per month) with accommodations. It conducted regular inspections of health and living conditions at labor camps, stated that it issued written documentation on problems needing correction, and reviewed them in subsequent inspections. Nevertheless, some low-wage foreign workers faced substandard living conditions, including overcrowded apartments or unsafe and unhygienic lodging in labor camps. In some cases, the ministry cancelled hiring permits for companies that failed to provide adequate housing. During some inspections of labor camps, the ministry employed interpreters to assist foreign workers in understanding employment guidelines. The ministry operated a toll-free hotline in several languages spoken by foreign residents through which workers were able to report delayed wage payments or other violations. The ministry’s mobile van units also visited some labor camps to inform workers of their rights.
Emirate-level officials across the country developed programs aimed at verifying the protection of workers’ rights, security, and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Abu Dhabi blue-collar workers residing in labor camps and industrial cities received free COVID-19 testing. Quarantine facilities and free health care were provided to those who tested positive. The Abu Dhabi government mandated employers to continue paying rent and food costs for all workers through August, although the government allowed drastic salary cuts. Dubai Municipality and the Dubai Health Authority instituted regulations, including thermal screening and capacity limitations on shared transportation to and from work sites, to limit the spread of COVID-19 within labor camps, and engaged in a systematic inspection campaign to verify compliance.
The government instituted a standard contract for domestic workers aimed to protect domestic workers through a binding agreement between employers and domestic workers. The contract provides for transparency and legal protections concerning issues such as working hours, time off, overtime, health care, and housing. Officials from some originating countries criticized the process, saying it prevented foreign embassies from reviewing and approving the labor contracts of their citizens. As a result, some countries attempted to halt their citizens’ travel to the UAE to assume domestic labor positions. Many entered on visit visas, however, and then adjusted status, making them vulnerable to exploitation by illegal recruiters.
The government allowed foreign workers to switch jobs without a letter of permission from their employer. Labor regulations provide foreign employees the option to work without an employment contract or, in cases in which a contract was in force, to change employer sponsors after two years, as well as within the first two years within the terms of the contract. The government designed this regulation to improve job mobility and reduce the vulnerability of foreign workers to abuse. To mitigate against potential labor abuse under the kafala (or sponsorship) system, a 2019 cabinet resolution granted domestic workers the right to terminate their employment if an employer fails to meet contractual obligations or if the employee is subject to sexual harassment or physical or verbal abuse by the employer. Despite legal measures allowing workers to change sponsors or terminate their employment, regulatory enforcement remained a problem.
The government-supported NGO EHRA promoted worker rights. It conducted unannounced visits to labor camps and work sites to monitor conditions and reported violations to the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization.
There were cases in which workers were injured or killed on job sites; however, authorities typically did not disclose details of workplace injuries and deaths, including the adequacy of safety measures. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization routinely conducted health and safety site visits. The ministry mandated that companies with more than 15 employees submit labor injuries reports. A ministerial resolution requires private companies that employ more than 500 workers to hire at least one local as an occupational health and safety officer; companies with more than 1,000 employees must hire two health and safety officers. In addition, Dubai required construction companies and industrial firms to appoint safety officers accredited by authorized entities to promote greater site safety.
Reports of migrant worker suicides or attempted suicides continued. In some cases, observers linked the suicides to poor working and living conditions, low wages, and financial strain caused by heavy debts owed to originating-country labor recruitment agencies. Dubai police and the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, a quasi-governmental organization, conducted vocational training programs with some elements aimed at decreasing suicidal behavior.