United Arab Emirates
Population: 3 100 000
Capital: Abu Dhabi
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 - 100 - 105 - 111 - 138 - 182
The bill permitting trade unions has still not been adopted. In September the Ministry of Labour adopted a resolution banning migrant workers from striking. That decision followed a period of major social unrest in the construction sector.
Trade union rights in law
Trade unions and collective bargaining prohibited: The current Labour Law does not permit the formation of trade unions, although workers are allowed to associate for the furtherance of common goals and interests.
The law does not recognise the right to collective bargaining. Wages are fixed in individual contracts that are reviewed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. The Immigration Ministry performs this role for domestic staff, as most are foreign nationals.
Workers’ representatives do have some say in settling disputes, through complaints to the Ministry of Labour or, if the Ministry is unable to mediate a solution within ten days, through a system of joint Conciliation Committees, chaired by the Ministry.
Workers do not have the right to stop work while a dispute is being resolved.
Bill allowing the creation of trade unions: The bill allowing the formation of trade unions in the private sector was approved by the legislative committee of the Ministry of Justice in October 2004, but had still not been passed by the end of 2006, despite several announcements that it would be. The framework law was drafted with a view to complying with international labour standards, according to the authorities. UAE nationals and foreign workers who have been employed, with a valid labour card, in the UAE for a minimum of three years will be allowed to form trade union committees in companies that employ not less than 20 UAE nationals. While this would mark an important step forward, it means that many foreign workers could still be excluded from union membership. The bill also appears overly prescriptive in describing the role and structure of a federation of trade unions for the UAE, going against the principle that unions should be free to decide their own structures and activities.
Top civil servants, such as under-secretaries and assistant under-secretaries, and directors and executive directors, who work for the public sector, would not be allowed to join a trade union.
Strikes banned in the public sector: Public sector workers and national security guards are not allowed to strike. The law does not provide for the right to strike for other workers, but does not forbid it either. The Labour Minister is allowed to intervene to end a strike and to force workers to go back to work.
Migrants banned from striking: In a resolution passed on 6 September that only applies to migrant workers, the Ministry of Labour decided to ban any migrants from working for one year if they had taken part in a strike or provoked one "without a valid reason".
Some sectors not covered: Labour legislation does not cover public service workers, domestic workers or anyone working in the agricultural sector. Employees in the latter two sectors have great difficulty in negotiating employment contracts and are particularly exposed in the event of a dispute with their employer.
Export processing zones (EPZs): Although the EPZs are supposed to comply with the Labour Law, the Ministry of Labour does not regulate them. Each zone has its own labour department to deal with workers’ issues.
Trade union rights in practice
Migrant workers exploited: Migrants, most of whom come from South Asia, account for about 85 per cent of the workforce, according to the Ministry of Labour. They are bound by the sponsor system that puts them at the mercy of their employers.
They risk deportation if they try to organise trade unions or take strike action. These workers are generally hired for three to five year periods and work in very harsh conditions. Problems over unpaid wages have persisted.
Domestic employees, especially women, are often mistreated. Theoretically, they can turn to the courts, but, more often than not, legal fees and the fear of reprisals or even deportation deter them from taking any official action.
Goodwill gestures by the authorities: Strikes and demonstrations occurred almost daily in the private sector during the year. In most cases it was migrant workers protesting about non-payment of wages and hazardous working conditions. Despite making arrests and deportations, the authorities have attempted, at both federal and UAE level, to signal a desire to protect workers’ rights better. In 2005, for instance, the Dubai authorities established two bodies, the Permanent Committee for Labour Affairs and the police authorities’ Human Rights Department, which have apparently received thousands of complaints and enabled the employees of some 60 companies to receive back pay. On 7 November 2006, the government announced that it was about to bring in some social reforms including the creation of a special Labour Court and the recruitment of a large number of Labour Inspectors. At the end of 2006, it announced that the draft text of the new Labour Law would be available on the internet in early 2007 so that all workers could pass on their suggestions.
Violations in 2006
Strike in the building sector: workers deported and impunity for the employers: On 16 May, 8,000 workers from the Belgian group Besix went on strike to protest against their low wages. A manager stated that around 50 workers who refused to go back to work were deported. Other sources reported that 86 workers were deported at the end of May.
Two other strikes took place in the building sector, as a result of inadequate or unpaid wages, confiscation of passports, very dangerous working conditions and a total lack of trade union rights. Owing to the immense frustration of the workers, the strikes turned violent. In one of the cases the workers were threatened with deportation and in the other three strikers were arrested.
Each time, the only sanctions imposed by the authorities were against the workers. As in other sectors, it seems that no attempts were made to investigate the allegations against employers and recruitment agencies that workers claimed were responsible for terrible working conditions and corruption.