The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. It increased oversight over domestic worker recruitment through Tadbeer Centers, continued to incorporate domestic workers in the WPS through a pilot program, expanded its awareness raising activities, and launched a pilot program with the Government of Saudi Arabia and the African Union to provide orientation programming to African workers bound for the Gulf. 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. In July 2020, the NCCHT met to review implementation of its anti-trafficking programming and the impact that the pandemic had on human rights issues overall in the Emirates; the entity subsequently published a public report outlining its findings that included recommendations to ensure workers’ rights were protected during the pandemic to mitigate increased risk of exploitation for workers that had experienced job loss, non-payment of wages, or loss of legal status. In October 2020, the UAE hosted the second annual Anti-Trafficking Forum in the Middle East focusing the efforts of participating governments on preventing pandemic-related vulnerabilities for workers, increasing protections for victims, and strengthening transparency in foreign worker recruitment processes to mitigate potential exploitation.
The government amplified awareness on trafficking by continuing to post informational notices at airports, implement training courses for high-risk groups, and disseminate publications in various languages directed at the most at-risk communities, effectively reaching tens of thousands of individuals during the year. The campaigns raised awareness of penalties for trafficking and publicized hotlines for more information or direct assistance. Airport banners specifically targeted terminals based on nationalities with high workforce numbers in the UAE. The government educated passengers at Dubai International Airport (DXB) about trafficking through clips, broadcasts, flyers, and tactically situated massive banners in nine prominent languages. In October 2020, Dubai government-owned Emirates Airline began showing an informational film about human trafficking on all flights via its inflight entertainment system. Dubai Police, NCCHT, and DXB, in partnership with an international organization, continued its two-year campaign that began in July 2019 entitled “Don’t Turn a Blind Eye.” The campaign aimed to raise awareness of airport employees and travelers on how to detect trafficking crimes. In addition to workshops for airport employees, the campaign also publicized information on screens in DXB to educate travelers on how to identify potential trafficking victims. During the reporting period, the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children and the Aman Shelter for Women and Children co-produced a series of leaflets to inform vulnerable populations of domestic abuse and trafficking risks, which the organizations translated into 10 languages and distributed online and via social media. The Aman Shelter also reported producing a training film on workers’ rights, trafficking, and domestic abuse that was shown to all domestic workers employed through Tadbeer Centers—recruitment centers for domestic workers—in Ras Al Khaimah. Shelter staff continued a 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. During the reporting period, the Federal Public Prosecution published an awareness brochure on social media outlining the penalties against individuals who knew of the commission of human trafficking crimes but failed to inform the competent authorities; the brochure was viewed more than 5,600 times. The MOI, in cooperation with health, social, and legal bodies, organized 20 lectures, workshops, and education seminars benefiting 6,420 workers across the UAE. Additionally, the Abu Dhabi Police worked with media outlets to warn job seekers about fraudulent internet employment ads that emerged as a result of increased unemployment due to the pandemic and cautioned laid-off workers to be cognizant of fraudulent job offers that charged recruitment fees, which is an illegal practice in UAE.
The government funded and ran a 24-hour toll-free hotline for reporting cases of trafficking, delayed wage payments, or other labor violations, which operated in Arabic, English, Hindi, Russian, Tagalog, and Urdu. Calls were categorized and automatically alerted police in suspected trafficking cases. Additionally, MOHRE, MOI and DFWAC had dedicated multilingual toll-free hotlines; MOI continued to host a mobile phone application that allowed users to access certain police services on their phones, and victims of trafficking or witnesses to the crime could use the application to file reports as well. In Dubai, law enforcement 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. Analogous to the year prior, the government did not report how many trafficking or trafficking-related calls any hotline received, how many victims were identified, or how many investigations were initiated during the reporting year.
Officials continued to employ public-private partnership recruitment centers for domestic workers, known as Tadbeer Centers, mandated 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 as they were not generally able to enter or inspect private homes. The centers were integral to the movement of domestic worker recruitment from the Ministry of Interior to MOHRE, a change aimed at improving recruitment regulation and standards. NGOs continued to raise concerns about the ease with which tourist visas could be converted into work visas for workers looking to circumvent their home countries’ recruitment ban in the UAE—a practice that exacerbated the risk of trafficking for these workers, as they often paid fees to multiple recruitment agencies in both their home countries and in the UAE and had no protection under UAE law when they arrived on tourist visas. Furthermore, some workers were unable to switch their visas to employment visas and so continued to work illegally, heightening their vulnerability to exploitation. In January 2021, media reported that dozens of Filipina workers who had been promised jobs in the UAE and had entered the country on 30-day tourist visas facilitated by two private recruitment agencies in the Emirates were confined against their will upon arrival until their tourist visas expired; the workers were then transported to Syria to work as domestic workers and subjected to conditions of forced labor, including physical and sexual abuse and non-payment of wages. In a purported effort to address this practice and solely use Tadbeer Centers for the recruitment and regulation of all domestic workers, the MOHRE announced the closure of 250 private recruitment agencies in January 2021; agencies had the option to obtain a Tadbeer license, switch to another sector or shut down by March 2021. In the past, these private recruitment agencies were accused of violating labor and immigration laws and failing to guarantee the rights of workers and employers, but they were popular as their services were viewed as cheaper, more flexible and more accessible than those offered at Tadbeer Centers. MOHRE reported that it was working with Tadbeer Centers to lower their operational costs and revise their fees to make them more competitive and starting in March 2021, citizens and residents would be required to hire domestic workers through Tadbeer Centers, an effort to ensure that all domestic workers were recruited through government regulated mechanisms and therefore were protected under the domestic worker law. At the close of the reporting period, 56 Tadbeer Centers were operational across the Emirates, an increase from the 23 Centers that were operational at the end of the previous reporting period.
The government implemented Federal Law No. 10 of 2017 to improve the work conditions and welfare of domestic employees and adopted Cabinet Resolution No. 22 of 2019, which granted domestic workers the right to terminate their employment if an employer failed to meet contractual obligations such as payment of wages, or if the employee was subject to sexual harassment or physical or verbal abuse by the employer. The government did not strengthen 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. Expatriate workers were granted the freedom to leave and switch employers at any time without employer approval through Ministerial Decree No. 765 and 766 of 2015; however, this decision included the requirement that the worker had to provide between one and three months’ notice, depending on the initial contract terms to leave an employer. According to the NCCHT, 319,655 workers changed employers during 2020. As with domestic workers, in instances where an expatriate employee faced physical or verbal abuse or sexual harassment, the worker had the freedom to leave the employer without notice. All workers were able to terminate employment at any time in the absence of abuse or a contractual breach but may be required to forego certain benefits including end of service gratuity and a return ticket to their home country. In those instances, a domestic worker may have had to pay their employer compensation equal to one month’s wages and other entitlements deemed necessary by a court. In such instances, MOHRE could issue the domestic worker a new work permit to move to a new employer; the domestic worker was not subject to immediate deportation if they terminated employment, to ensure the worker had sufficient time to find a new job. Most workers chose to remain in the UAE to work for another employer under a new work permit or contract after terminating their previous employment.
MOHRE primarily oversaw, regulated, and enforced labor-related complaints. Efforts by MOHRE to combat forced labor across the UAE included an extensive labor inspection program that incorporated routine and unannounced inspections of company housing and work sites by a team of full-time labor inspectors, in addition to seven dedicated anti-trafficking inspectors. Authorities generally dealt with labor law violations administratively and did not report investigating such cases for trafficking indicators or referring any for criminal prosecution. Moreover, the NCCHT reported that the government conducted 280,728 inspection visits in 2020 but did not report how many labor law violations were identified via those inspections, and if any were referred for further investigation or criminal prosecution as potential trafficking cases. The government continued its monitoring and inspection program for regulation of private sector laborers, including through the 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. MOHRE reported that letters were issued to companies irrespective of their size and owner and sent to the Public Prosecutor for WPS violations; the ministry also reported that cases were not dropped until the missing wages were paid and the company was up to date with all salary payments. For the 13th consecutive year, 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 not subjected to forced labor.
The NCCHT reported that the government issued 8,181 fines to companies that failed to provide payments to workers via the WPS in 2020 but did not report investigating such cases for trafficking indicators or referring any for criminal prosecution. Workplace grievances routinely resulted in fines, suspended permits to hire new workers, or the cancellation of business licenses though, apart from the number of fines issued to companies in violation of the WPS, the official number and specifics of other punishments were unknown. Media and diplomatic sources continued to report that 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. Furthermore, domestic worker salaries were not required to be paid via the WPS; this, 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, rendered domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation. However, the government continued its pilot program from the previous reporting period to incorporate domestic workers into the WPS, and in July 2020, MOHRE signed an agreement with First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB) to integrate these workers under the system. The NCCHT reported that the pilot program integrated 423 domestic workers in 2021; overall, however, less than one percent of domestic workers were enrolled in the WPS at the close of the reporting period. In practice, the system facilitated monthly salary payments and monitored payments for timeliness and transparency, and domestic workers received earnings into accounts that could be accessed through issued debit cards provided to workers. The NCCHT reported that although the enrollment of domestic workers under the WPS was currently voluntary, the renewal of domestic worker permits will make enrollment mandatory, with the intent that all domestic workers will be integrated under the WPS in 2022. The government did not enforce a prohibition on employers withholding workers’ passports, which remained a pervasive problem and left workers vulnerable to exploitation and potentially trafficking.
In January 2021, the government announced a partnership between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the African Union to pilot and implement an orientation program for Gulf-bound workers from Africa. During the previous reporting period, the UAE and Government of the Philippines signed a trafficking-specific memorandum of understanding (MOU), which adopted procedures and created a joint taskforce to combat the crime as well as share best practices, exchange information, promote human rights, and provide assistance in the protection, repatriation, recovery, and rehabilitation of trafficking victims in accordance with domestic laws. Since 2014, the Government of the Philippines banned the recruitment of domestic workers to the UAE; however, in March 2021, the two governments agreed to additional protections for Filipino domestic workers that lifted the suspension. These protections included ensuring domestic workers were given a standard employment contract, remained in possession of their passports and mobile phones (employers would be banned from holding them), got eight hours of sleep a day, one paid day off per week, and the right to hold a bank account; additionally, the Philippine’s Embassy in the UAE would be notified if a Filipino national sought to change a tourist visa to a work visa. In addition to the government’s MOUs with Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Gambia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Uganda, and Vietnam to regulate recruitment mechanisms and prevent contract switching, in 2020, the UAE and the Government of Belarus signed an MOU to increase cooperation on trafficking issues. Further, the government also held the second bilateral meeting of the task force responsible for implementing the MOU between India and the UAE on cooperation to prevent and combat trafficking. The government did not report any specific results of any of these MOUs during the reporting period. The government did not take measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in the UAE. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained provision of workshops and awareness programs on human trafficking for its diplomatic personnel.