UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Tier 2

The Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore the UAE remained on Tier 2. These efforts included significantly increasing the number of trafficking prosecutions, convictions, victims identified, and victims referred for protective services. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Emirati labor law and some sponsorship reforms, including the ability to change employers or positions without sponsor objection, did not apply to domestic or private sector workers, and government law enforcement and victim protection efforts for labor trafficking remained weak. The government did not finalize implementing regulations for and strengthen enforcement of the domestic worker law that expands legal protections for domestic workers. It did not pursue criminal investigations against officials purportedly complicit in trafficking crimes despite allegations of such throughout the reporting period.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS

Increase the number of trafficking investigations, especially by investigating potential forced labor crimes indicators such as passport retention, withholding of wages, labor violations, and complaints of abuse. • Strictly enforce prohibitions on withholding workers’ passports. • Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and punish trafficking offenses, especially labor trafficking involving adults, inclusive of domestic workers, under the anti-trafficking law. • Pursue criminal investigations against officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes. • Finalize and execute implementing regulations for and strengthen enforcement of the domestic worker law that expands legal protections for domestic workers. • Provide protection services to all trafficking victims, including by increasing services available for forced labor victims and trainings for shelter staff on how to identify and care for such victims. • Expand reforms to the sponsorship-based employment system, including Wage Protection System coverage to all employees, specifically domestic workers. • Regularly employ standard procedures for victim identification among foreign workers subjected to forced labor and those applying for amnesty, particularly domestic workers who have fled their employers, to ensure victims are not wrongfully penalized.

PROSECUTION

The government increased overall anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, but efforts to address forced labor remained weak. Federal Law 51 of 2006 and its amendments in Federal Law No.1 of 2015 criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties ranging from five years to life in prison, as well as fines ranging from 100,000 to one million UAE dirham (AED) ($27,230 to $272,260) and deportation for non-citizens. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Federal Law No.10 of 2017 provided additional protections for domestic workers, as well regulations for recruitment agencies and employers of such workers, including those pertaining to hiring practices, working conditions, and employment contracts. Federal Law No. 10 protected workers’ rights to retain their own identity documents, but did not stipulate penalties for employers who confiscated workers’ passports.

As in years past, the government did not report statistics on investigations of suspected trafficking cases. According to data provided by the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT), in 2018 the government engaged in legal proceedings against 77 alleged traffickers in 30 cases, of which 13 cases involving 34 traffickers remained under trial at the end of 2018. In comparison, it prosecuted 48 alleged traffickers in 16 cases during the previous reporting period. One case involved forced labor, and officials prosecuted it under the anti-trafficking law. Per the NCCHT 2018 Annual Report, the government convicted 35 defendants under trafficking laws during 2018, a marked increase from seven and nine it convicted in 2017 and 2016, respectively, and sentences ranged from one year imprisonment plus a fine to life in prison. According to the NCCHT, officials acquitted six alleged traffickers on trafficking charges and deported two accused traffickers after stays of case proceedings in 2018.

The government rarely investigated as possible trafficking crimes violations of Emirati labor laws that exhibited trafficking indicators, such as passport confiscation, delayed or nonpayment of wages, and contract switching; the government treated these cases most often exclusively as regulatory violations through administrative fines or the cancellation of business licenses in lieu of criminal proceedings. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials complicit in trafficking crimes during the reporting year.

In March 2019, the Dubai Police partnered with Dubai’s Judicial Institute, the NCCHT, and an international organization to host its fifth five-month diploma course on anti-trafficking measures attended by 34 government officials. Government authorities continued to train police, judges, prison officials, and immigration authorities on identifying trafficking victims. The law enforcement and judicial sectors continued to dedicate official training sections for how to manage human trafficking cases. Abu Dhabi’s prosecutorial division trained 65 officials on how to identify trafficking victims, including 38 judges who were in the process of adjudicating labor grievance cases.

PROTECTION

The government maintained its efforts to protect trafficking victims. Protection efforts continued to focus almost exclusively on victims of sex trafficking, as efforts to identify and provide care for victims of forced labor remained weak. During 2018, the government identified 51 victims and referred them to protective services, compared to 25 the previous year. A shelter for male victims, located in Abu Dhabi, housed 15 Pakistani men in 2017 who had been forced to beg; in 2018, the government assisted in their repatriation and provided to each a monetary stipend to start small businesses in Pakistan. While the government had standard procedures for victim identification among foreign workers, officials did not regularly employ these procedures and continued to rely predominantly on third-party referrals to identify victims, including from foreign embassies, religious institutions, or tips received through government hotlines, smartphone applications, and the internet. Authorities continued to implement a formal referral process to transfer suspected trafficking victims from detention centers, hospitals, houses of worship, or facilities run by source country embassies or consulates, to government shelters, upon the completion of victim identification. At times, female or male police officers in plain clothes—intended to reduce victims’ anxieties—escorted victims, identified by law enforcement, from a government-run detention center to a shelter; however, reports persisted that some victims were unwilling to approach law enforcement officials due to fear of being sent to prison for immigration or other violations rather than being accepted into a shelter. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children reported prosecutors referred eight trafficking victims to its shelter in 2018. In August 2018, the government donated $100,000 to an international body’s trust fund for trafficking victims globally. The government paid via its victims support fund roughly 100,000 AED ($27,230) for protective services for trafficking victims, which was on par with the previous year’s allocation of 99,000 AED ($26,950). The government also maintained oversight and funding for shelters in three of the seven emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, and Sharjah), offering housing and assistance for all female and child sex trafficking and abuse victims across the country; protective services included medical, psychological, legal, educational, rehabilitation and reintegration, and vocational assistance. Some foreign workers, including potential trafficking victims, sought shelter assistance at their respective embassies and consulates, and other consulates used foster families of the same nationality to host victims until their cases were resolved, in part due to limited resources for victims of forced labor. Emirates Airlines, which is owned by the Dubai government, trained its cabin crewmembers and other airport ground staff on detecting instances of human trafficking at check-in and on flights.

Independent observers alleged some potential victims were reportedly jailed for prostitution or absconding from their employers. Because the government did not routinely use victim identification procedures or screen for potential trafficking crimes among vulnerable populations, it likely prosecuted some unidentified victims during the year. The government reported it exempted from fines forced labor victims who had overstayed their visas or sex trafficking victims. From August to December 2018, the government implemented its third-ever visa amnesty period, which was well-received by expatriate communities. Migrant laborers who overstayed their visas or entered the country illegally were allowed to either apply for an exit pass (220 AED [$60]) to voluntarily depart the UAE without immigration fines, or apply for a six-month temporary visa (500 AED [$136]) and adjust their irregular status by obtaining a work visa under a new sponsor. The government did not report how many individuals took advantage of this amnesty program or whether it utilized screening mechanisms to identify potential trafficking victims. The government did not provide permanent or formal temporary residency status to victims; however, it permitted victims to stay in shelters and participate in court proceedings, and worked with international organizations to resettle in third countries victims who could not return to their countries of origin. It reported funding repatriation for some victims but did not report a total number repatriated during the reporting period. Shelter staff noted they assisted an unknown number of trafficking victims in finding new employment or sponsors on an ad-hoc basis. The government encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers and provided victim-witness protective services, including private interview rooms, free legal counseling, and safe transportation to court hearings. Both police and shelter representatives reported victims often chose immediate repatriation rather than remaining in country to testify against alleged traffickers. Laborers were entitled to freely seek new employment in the country after 60 days of wage non-payment by their existing employer by going through the Ministry of Interior to adjudicate the process.

PREVENTION

The government continued efforts to prevent trafficking. Overall, the NCCHT reported in 2018 it spearheaded and funded various anti-trafficking awareness campaigns that reached approximately 217,269 laborers, 23,400 members of the general public, 1,371 government employees, 80 students, and 20 foreign diplomats. The government continued to carry out its national action plan to address trafficking, driven chiefly by the NCCHT. The plan focused on prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment, promotion of international cooperation, redress, rehabilitation, reintegration, and capacity building. Government shelter staff maintained its partnership with art galleries for visual art exhibits that showcased art made by trafficking victims, to both increase awareness and raise funds for other victims. The government disseminated anti-trafficking awareness publications in 14 languages, which targeted at-risk communities and reached an unknown number of vulnerable people. It installed informational noticeboards at airports across the UAE targeting specific terminals based upon nationalities, and utilized radio broadcasting to increase general awareness on trafficking risks. Dubai Police and other government representatives commenced the fifth phase of its five-year anti-trafficking awareness plan to coincide with the UN World Day against Trafficking in Persons. This campaign focused on educating employees at two malls, various beauty salons, and other retail stores by the distribution of thousands of leaflets. The campaign also reached 53 domestic worker recruitment offices in Dubai and the staff of these offices in the respective source countries—Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. Furthermore, officials sponsored 10 lectures on the prevention of trafficking and leveraged popular social media platforms and multilingual radio broadcasts to spread awareness. The Dubai and Abu Dhabi police forces tandemly facilitated numerous workshops and training courses during the reporting period, reaching an unknown number of personnel. Additionally, the Dubai police organized and hosted a read-in training day, which aimed to promulgate knowledge on how to combat trafficking and treat victims; this event reached affiliates from various entities including police, human rights associations, housing and shelter institutions, and other relevant government agencies. In 2018, relevant ministry and law enforcement officials held a series of lectures and training programs in workers’ residences and recruitment offices to raise awareness about types of trafficking crimes and best practices for coordinating with law enforcement personnel and shelter staff. During the year, the public prosecutor’s office used social media platforms to disseminate information regarding definitional elements of trafficking. The government funded and ran a 24-hour hotline for reporting cases of trafficking, which operated in Arabic, English, Russian, and Urdu. Calls were categorized and automatically alerted police in suspected trafficking cases. In Dubai, authorities ran a separate line, and UAE-wide there remained a 24-hour toll-free number for migrant laborers to vocalize workplace complaints or general inquiries. The government did not report how many trafficking or trafficking-related calls any hotline received during the reporting year.

The treatment of domestic workers, primarily maids and nannies, remained a significant concern during the reporting period. Reports suggested passport withholding, unpaid overtime, lack of time off, and failure to pay agreed-upon wages continued to be prevalent practices among employers. The government did not fully implement Federal Law No.10 of 2017 to improve the work conditions and welfare of domestic employees, particularly as it pertained to regulatory enforcement of in-home inspections and workplace grievance resolution. In addition, sociocultural and legal barriers against government interference with private households continued to hamper monitoring and enforcement efforts of its domestic worker law. This law included the right for employees to retain personal documents, sign standardized contracts with unequivocally designated working conditions, access specialized tribunals for settling workplace grievances, and observe mandatory time off. It also stipulated in-home inspections on the basis of complaints or reasonable evidence of law violations. Under the law’s provisions, a recruitment agency or person who hindered law enforcement, anyone who disclosed information unveiled in an investigation, or anyone who facilitated the abandonment of a domestic worker may be jailed for a minimum of six months and ordered to pay a 10,000 to 100,000 AED ($2,720 to $27,230) fine. However, implementing regulations remained under development for the second consecutive year.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization (MOHRE) primarily oversaw, regulated, and enforced labor-related complaints. Efforts by the MOHRE to combat forced labor practices across the UAE included an extensive labor inspection program including routine and unannounced inspections of housing and work sites by a team of full-time labor inspectors, in addition to seven dedicated anti-trafficking inspectors. Authorities usually dealt with labor law violations administratively and did not report investigating such cases for trafficking indicators or referring any for criminal prosecution. The government continued its monitoring and inspection program for private sector laborers, including through the Wage Protection System (WPS), which electronically monitored salary payments via vetted banks, currency exchanges, and financial institutions for all onshore companies employing more than 100 workers (95 percent of the private sector workforce). The WPS automatically flagged delayed salary payments of more than 60 days, or payments that were less than contractually agreed upon, and after a designated period, authorities administered fines and other enforcement actions, including criminal proceedings, after an unknown number of labor-related inspections. However, a local news investigation estimated that almost 50 percent of all small private construction and transport companies circumvented the WPS to pay workers only 60 percent of their contractual salaries. Media and diplomatic sources reported some companies retained workers’ bank cards or accompanied workers to withdraw cash, coercively shortchanging the employees even though the WPS showed the proper amount paid. Such cases were difficult to prove in labor courts, given the WPS documented accurate payments via designated bank accounts. The government did not report the number of complaints of unpaid wages it investigated as a result of its dispute resolution process or the WPS, which were intended to ensure workers were paid according to their contracts, and if employers were punished with administrative and financial penalties for compliance failure; it also did not report investigating such cases for trafficking indicators or referring any for criminal prosecution. Workers filed thousands of labor complaints through government-operated smartphone applications, telephone hotlines, websites, email, and formally with MOHRE offices and mobile units; violations routinely resulted in fines, suspended permits to hire new workers, or the cancellation of business licenses, though the official number of these punishments was unknown. However, domestic worker salaries were not required to be paid via the WPS and, coupled with cultural norms and the lack of legal provisions requiring inspections of domestic worker accommodations, wage payment and work hour abuses, among other acts indicative of forced labor, continued and left domestic workers at risk of exploitation. Officials continued to employ its public-private partnership recruitment centers for domestic workers, known as “Tadbeer Centers,” which held the mandate to regulate the recruitment and training of domestic workers, educate them on their legal rights, resolve employer-employee disputes, and verify worker accommodations for compliance with domestic worker law minimum standards. Each center was equipped with a room solely for grievance mediation, with a video connection to MOHRE for official oversight. In practice, however, these centers were inhibited since they were not permitted to enter or inspect private homes. The government had in place MOUs with Thailand, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, and India. The government did not enforce a prohibition on employers withholding workers’ passports, which remained a pervasive problem. The government did not take measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex in the UAE. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained provision of workshops and awareness programs on human trafficking for its diplomatic personnel.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit foreign victims in the UAE. Foreign workers comprise nearly 90 percent of the UAE’s population and are recruited globally. Lower wage labor, including most manual labor and a significant portion of the service sector, are occupied almost entirely by migrant workers predominantly from South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, with a growing percentage from East and West Africa; some of these workers are exploited in practices indicative of forced labor, such as passport retention, non-payment of wages and unpaid overtime, restrictions on movement, contract switching, fraudulent employment promises, substandard food and housing provisions, or a failure to meet other contractual agreements. Women and men from some of these countries travel willingly to the UAE to work as domestic workers, massage therapists, beauticians, hotel cleaners, or elsewhere in the service sector, but traffickers subject some of them to forced labor or sex trafficking after arrival. Traffickers subject some women, predominantly from Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia, East Africa, Eastern Europe, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco, to sex trafficking in the UAE. Per media sources, many cases of child sex trafficking involve traffickers forging ages on passports to facilitate undetected entry into the UAE. Sponsorship laws increase vulnerability to trafficking, particularly for domestic employees, by restricting the ability of employees to leave or change employers, and giving employers unilateral power to cancel residence permits, deny employees permission to leave the country, and threaten employees with abuse of legal processes.

Although illegal under UAE law, many source-country labor recruiters charge workers exorbitant fees in their home countries, causing workers to commence employment in the UAE owing debts in their respective countries of origin, increasing vulnerability to trafficking through debt-based coercion. Despite new laws to prevent the practice, reports of employers engaging in contract-swapping persisted, which leads to less desirable and lower paying jobs for laborers post-arrival in the UAE. Traffickers often recruit victims from the large foreign population already in the country; they may deceive or compel a migrant worker in the UAE, willingly on a tourist or work visa, into forced labor or sex trafficking. Additionally, some laborers enter the UAE on tourist visas, and start working for an employer who subsequently opts to not change the tourist visa to a work one in order to grant legal residency, which remains a common method of exploitation. According to UAE shelter staff, migrant workers will sometimes start with one employer and for various reasons, including abuse or exploitation, will follow alternate employment opportunities that ultimately prove fictitious.

An international organization alleged the government, a member of a multi-nation coalition that commenced military operations against Houthi rebel forces in Yemen in 2015, provided training and coordinated operations with the Security Belt Forces, Hadhrami Elite Forces, and Shabwani Elite Forces—proxy militias fighting Houthi forces and terrorists in Yemen that allegedly recruited and used children as soldiers. Media reported officers associated with Sudan’s Rapid Support Force took bribes from families to permit minors to serve as combatants in Yemen during the reporting year. Emirati officers allegedly trained and commanded some Sudanese combatants.

U.S. Department of State

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