United Arab Emirates
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption.
Nepotism and conflict of interest in government appointments and contract allocations existed. The Ministries of Interior and Justice and the state audit institutions are responsible for combating government corruption.
Corruption: In July, four Ministry of Interior employees (three Emiratis and one Indian) were arrested on corruption charges for using confidential information to blackmail persons, threatening to add their victims’ names to the police wanted list if they did not pay. In the past, authorities also prosecuted cases of police corruption.
Financial Disclosure: There are no financial disclosure laws, regulations, or codes of conduct requiring officials to disclose their income and assets. The operating instructions for the FNC elections require all candidates to disclose sources of funding for their campaigns.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, which is punishable by death under the penal code. In March a Ras al-Khaimah court sentenced an Asian man to death after convicting him of raping his 14-year-old daughter. The penal code does not address spousal rape.
Punishments issued by courts in domestic abuse cases were often minimal. In some cases, police shared a victim’s contact information with her or his family, which sometimes reached the assailant.
In general the government did not enforce domestic abuse laws effectively, and domestic abuse against women, including spousal abuse, remained a problem. In sharia courts, which are primarily responsible for civil matters between Muslims, the extremely high burden of proof for a rape case contributed to a low conviction rate. In addition, female victims of rape or other sexual crimes faced the possibility of prosecution for consensual sex outside marriage instead of receiving assistance from authorities.
Victims of domestic abuse may file complaints with police units stationed in major public hospitals. Social workers and counselors, usually female, also maintained offices in public hospitals and police stations. There were domestic abuse centers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al-Khaimah, and Sharjah.
The government, in coordination with social organizations, sought to increase awareness of domestic violence, conducting seminars, educational programs, symposiums, and conferences. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children increased awareness of domestic violence through social media, television, radio programming, and advertising; by hosting workshops; and sponsoring a hotline. The Aman Shelter for Women and Children in Ras al-Khaimah also maintains a hotline for domestic abuse victims.
In November 2019 the cabinet passed the Family Protection Policy to address domestic violence concerns. The directive aims to raise awareness of domestic abuse, train staff in detection and intervention, strengthen information sharing across institutions working to combat domestic violence, and establish a standardized system to report incidents of domestic violence. As part of the policy, authorities introduced restraining orders and new prison terms for domestic violence, including maximum six-month sentences. According to the Ministry of Community Development, the policy was to be implemented over the next three years.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not address FGM/C, although the Ministry of Health prohibits hospitals and clinics from performing the procedure. FGM/C is practiced by some tribal groups and was reportedly declining as a traditional custom, yet little information was available. Foreign residents from countries where FGM/C is prevalent undertook the practice.
Sexual Harassment: The government prosecutes harassment via the penal code. In November the president amended the code to expand the legal definition of sexual harassment to include repetitive harassment through action, words, or signs. The amendment also acknowledges that men could be victims of sexual harassment. Article 359 stipulates that acts of sexual harassment shall be punished by a prison term of at least one year, a minimum fine of at least 10,000 AED (2,720), or both. If a criminal judgement is rendered against a foreigner, it is to include a prison term followed by deportation.
Conviction of “disgracing or dishonoring” a person in public is punishable by a minimum of one year and up to 15 years in prison if the victim is younger than age 14. Conviction for “infamous” acts against the rules of decency is punishable by a penalty of six months in prison, and “dishonoring a woman by word or deed on a public roadway” is also a punishable offense. The government generally enforced this law.
Reproductive Rights: Married couples have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to have access to the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, and violence.
While reproductive health care is available to all, it is more challenging to access for unmarried and noncitizen women who represent a significant majority of the female population. Additionally, there are restrictions to health-care access based on health insurance. Although the government provides free health care to citizens, including access to contraception, obstetric and gynecologic services, prenatal care, and delivery care to married female citizens, insurance plans for unskilled laborers often do not offer prenatal or antenatal care, and the government did not provide free antenatal care for noncitizen pregnant women. Expatriates with no health insurance benefits may visit public hospitals for a fee.
The law provides for corporal punishment for sexual relations and pregnancy outside of marriage, and authorities typically arrested and deported unmarried noncitizen workers who become pregnant. Reforms to these laws have been announced but not yet fully enacted. Privacy rights remain a problem as health authorities share information that has led to the arrests of unmarried noncitizens who became pregnant. Hospitals did not issue birth certificates to children born to unmarried parents, making it difficult for a child to remain in the country or to obtain a passport. Access to limited pharmacological contraception options is available only through medical prescription. Oral contraceptive prescriptions are legal for single women as treatment for menstrual issues. Most health insurance plans do not cover insertion and removal of intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants.
While female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is banned in government hospitals, private clinics and ritual/traditional circumcisers continued to perform it. The type of FGM most prevalent in the country was performed during infancy and childhood.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women in general faced legal and economic discrimination, with noncitizen women at a particular disadvantage.
The government’s interpretation of sharia applies in personal status cases and family law. Muslim women must have the consent of their guardians to marry. Local interpretation of sharia forbids Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. In addition, the law permits a man to have as many as four wives, women normally inherit less than men, and a son’s inheritance may be double that of a daughter. Legal reforms in 2019 allow women to apply for a passport without the written consent of her husband. In 2019 the government began allowing women to be head of household.
For a woman to obtain a divorce with a financial settlement, she must prove her husband inflicted physical or moral harm upon her, abandoned her for at least three months, or had not provided for her or their children’s upkeep. Physical abuse claims require medical reports and two male witnesses. It is up to the judge’s discretion to consider women as full witnesses or half witnesses. Alternatively, women may divorce by paying compensation or surrendering their dowry to their husbands. In September the Federal Supreme Court refused to grant a woman a divorce, stating it was not permissible for a woman to ask for a divorce without reason or evidence of the husband’s maltreatment.
The strict interpretation of sharia does not apply to child custody cases, and courts applied the “the best interests of the child” standard. According to federal law, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women are permitted to file for continued custody until a daughter is married or a son finishes his education. Under federal law, fathers are permitted to seek custody of a son younger than age 11 if they feel the child has become “too soft.”
The law provides for corporal punishment for sexual relations and pregnancy outside of marriage. The government may imprison and deport noncitizen women who bear children out of wedlock. In November 2019 Dubai authorities charged a Filipina woman with having sex out of wedlock after she was caught disposing of the body of a stillborn infant.
While education is equally accessible, federal law prohibits coeducation in public universities, except in the United Arab Emirates University’s Executive MBA program and in certain graduate programs at Zayed University. A large number of private schools, private universities, and institutions, however, were coeducational. According to officials, local women represented more than 70 percent of national higher education students.
The government excluded women from certain social and economic benefits, including land grants for building houses, because tribal family law often designates men as the heads of families.
The government has a Gender Balance Council to promote a greater role for female citizens, but not noncitizens, working outside the home. In 2019 the local Arabic-language newspaper al-Bayan reported that Emirati women occupied 66 percent of public-sector jobs, of which 30 percent held leadership and decision-making positions. The article also reported that 21,000 Emirati women were business owners and that Emirati women represented 72 percent of the total citizens working in the banking sector, although only 12 percent held leadership positions.
Birth Registration: Children generally derive citizenship from their parents. The children of UAE citizen mothers married to foreigners do not receive citizenship automatically. The government registered noncitizen births, including of Bidoon. The criminalization of sexual relations outside of marriage prevented the registration of children born out of wedlock and, as a result, access to travel documents.
Education: Education is compulsory through the ninth grade; however, the law was not enforced, and some children did not attend school, especially children of noncitizens. The government provided free primary education only to citizens. Noncitizen children could enroll in public schools only if they scored more than 90 percent on entrance examinations, which authorities administered in Arabic, and if one of the parents worked in a government entity, among other criteria. In 2018 the Ministry of Education made all public schools coeducational from the first to fifth grades, starting with that year’s first-grade class.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, and the government took steps to increase awareness of the issue, including the Child Safety Campaign, which reinforced the role of media in protecting the rights of children. In April, Dubai’s Community Development Authority implemented a 24-hour child abuse hotline. Sharjah authorities reported in April they had received 401 reports of child abuse in the past three months through a child abuse hotline maintained by the Sharjah Social Services Department. In June the government established the Federal Family and Child Prosecution Division to provide better child protection and expedite the legal process. The dedicated division is responsible for handling juvenile offenses and cases involving families and children. Several emirates, including Dubai, had child prosecution offices in their individual judicial systems. The government provided shelter and help for child victims of abuse or sexual exploitation.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage for both men and women is 18, unless a judge gives approval for an earlier marriage. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women previously reported on the persistence of unregistered child marriages.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes the sexual exploitation of children, with a minimum penalty for conviction of 10 years in prison. Consensual sex is illegal outside of marriage, carrying a minimum penalty of one year in prison. The penalty for conviction of sex with children younger than 14 is life imprisonment. Distribution and consumption of child pornography is illegal.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There is no indigenous Jewish community. There were no synagogues and no formal recognition of the very small foreign Jewish population (which constituted less than 1 percent of the population). The foreign Jewish community could conduct regular prayer services in rented space. The Jewish community requested a formal license during the year from the Dubai Community Development Authority. Following the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel, the government unblocked some websites containing Israeli- or Judaism-related content, as well as numerous online Israeli media outlets, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and Haaretz. Occasionally social media contained anti-Semitic remarks. There was anti-Semitic material available at some book fairs, including a few that operated with government oversight. In February the Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed the importance of keeping anti-Semitic literature out of book fairs.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, or the provision of other state services.
Public and private facilities provided education, health services, sports, and vocational rehabilitation for persons with disabilities. Many of the facilities were reserved for citizens.
The Ministry of Community Development (formerly Social Affairs) is the central body responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and raising awareness at the federal and local level. In accordance with the law, most public buildings provided some form of access for persons with disabilities.
Government entities sponsored conferences and workshops emphasizing the inclusion and integration of persons with disabilities into schools and workplaces. The government continued to raise public awareness of societal inclusivity through its National Strategy for Empowering People with Special Needs. The policy includes investment in research and development for health and rehabilitation, an integrative education system, vocational rehabilitation and employment, creation of unified criteria for building requirements, social protection, and societal integration through cultural, sports, and social activities.
In December the cabinet approved the People of Determination Protection from Abuse Policy, which aims to protect persons with disabilities. The policy, which establishes mechanisms to identify instances of potential maltreatment, also seeks to raise the proficiency of response specialists and offer restorative programs to persons with disabilities who suffered abuse. In July the Community Development Authority in Dubai announced the launch of a 24/7 hotline to report violations of the rights of persons with disabilities.
The government sponsored several initiatives to host international conferences for persons with disabilities emphasizing rights, opportunities, and the importance of social inclusion. The government also improved accessibility of public facilities. In August, Dubai Municipality announced it completed building or upgrading 70 parks and playgrounds, which included improving accessibility for disabled persons.
Approximately 90 percent of the country’s residents were noncitizens, more than half of whom originated from South Asia. Societal discrimination against noncitizens was prevalent and occurred in most areas of daily life, including employment, education, housing, social interaction, and health care.
The law allows for criminalizing commercial disputes and bankruptcy, which led to discrimination against foreigners. Authorities enforced these laws selectively and allowed citizens to threaten noncitizen businesspersons and foreign workers with harsh prison sentences to assure a favorable outcome in commercial disputes.
Both civil law and sharia criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Under sharia individuals who engage in consensual same-sex sexual conduct could be subject to the death penalty. Dubai’s penal code allows for up to a 10-year prison sentence for conviction of such activity, while Abu Dhabi’s penal code allows for up to a 14-year prison sentence. There were no reports of arrests or prosecutions for consensual same-sex conduct.
The law does not extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. There were no government efforts to address potential discrimination.
By law, wearing clothing deemed inappropriate for one’s sex is a punishable offense. The government previously deported foreign residents and referred the cases of individuals who wore clothing deemed inappropriate to the public prosecutor.
The law permits doctors to conduct sex reassignment surgery when there are “psychological” and “physiological” signs of gender and sex disparity. The penalty for performing an unwarranted “sex correction” surgery is three to 10 years in prison.
Due to social conventions and potential repression, LGBTI organizations did not operate openly, nor were gay pride marches or gay rights advocacy events held.
Noncitizens and, to a lesser extent, citizens with HIV/AIDS and other diseases faced discrimination. Legal protections against employment and education discrimination for individuals with HIV/AIDS, as well as free access to HIV treatment and care programs, existed for citizens; however, noncitizens did not have these rights. The government does not grant residency or work visas to persons with certain communicable diseases including HIV/AIDS. Noncitizens who test positive for these diseases may be detained and deported. Doctors are required to inform authorities of HIV/AIDS cases, reportedly discouraging individuals from seeking testing or treatment.
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.
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.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
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.
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.
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.