March 28, 2006 - New York
"One of the
world’s largest construction booms is feeding off of workers
in Dubai, but they’re treated as less than human. It’s no
surprise that some workers have started rioting in protest.
What’s surprising is that the government of the UAE is doing
nothing to solve the problem".
Sarah Leah Whitson,
Middle East and North Africa director at
Human Rights Watch
The government of the
United Arab Emirates should take immediate steps to end the abusive labor
practices that have helped spark recent unrest by migrant workers in
Dubai, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa
director said today.
During the past year, migrant workers have increasingly resorted to public
protests and strikes in an attempt to improve working conditions. UAE
government figures show that between May and December 2005, at least eight
major strikes took place. The latest, in Dubai last week, quickly spread
from construction workers who rioted at one skyscraper to others working
on a new airport terminal.
“One of the world’s largest construction booms is feeding off of workers
in Dubai, but they’re treated as less than human,” said Sarah Leah
Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s no surprise that some workers have started rioting in protest.
What’s surprising is that the government of the UAE is doing nothing to
solve the problem.”
Though the skyscraper strike was settled, the UAE government has been
unwilling to make a real commitment to stop systematic abuses by
employers, including the extended non-payment of wages, the denial of
proper medical care, and the squalid conditions in which most migrant
Migrant workers comprise nearly 90 percent of the workforce in the private
sector in the UAE. They are denied basic rights such as freedom of
association and the right to collective bargaining.
Human Rights Watch urged the UAE government to drastically expand its
staff overseeing migrant labor treatment. According to government sources,
the ministry of labor employs only 80 inspectors to oversee the activities
of nearly 200,000 businesses that sponsor and employ migrant workers.
The UAE government should also reform its labor laws to conform to
international standards set by the International Labor Organization, and
become a party to the International Convention on the Protection of the
Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Human Rights
The UAE is not a party to key international human rights treaties such as
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Employers routinely deny construction workers their wages. Officials with
the UAE Permanent Committee for Labor and Immigration told Human Rights
Watch that last year alone, nearly 20,000 workers filed complaints with
the government about the non-payment of wages and labor camp conditions.
Most construction workers secure work in the UAE by taking loans from
recruiting agencies in their home country. A typical construction worker
uses a large portion of his wages towards repayment of such loans on a
monthly basis, and without wages he falls further into debt. The result is
virtual debt bondage.
Death and injury at the workplace are also on the rise. Independent
research published in local media found that as many as 880 deaths
occurred at construction sites in 2004. These numbers were compiled by
surveying embassies of countries that have large number of workers in the
UAE. Government figures contrast sharply with these findings, stating that
the total number of deaths in 2004 was only 34.
“The government is turning a blind eye to a huge problem,” said Whitson.
“If it doesn’t start taking drastic new steps to improve conditions,
further unrest seems inevitable.”
The governments of the United States, the European Union, and Australia
are currently negotiating free trade agreements with the UAE. Human Rights
Watch called on these governments to require improvement of UAE’s labor
practices and legal standards before signing such agreements. Human Rights
Watch also urged these governments to include in any free trade agreements
reached with the UAE strong, enforceable workers’ rights provisions that
require parties’ labor laws to meet international standards, and the
effective enforcement of those laws.
Human Rights Watch recently conducted a fact-finding mission on the
conditions of migrant workers in the UAE and will be releasing its full
findings in the next few months.
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million foreigners, most of them unskilled or semi-skilled
migrants, work in Gulf states. Migrants comprise some 90
percent of the 1.7 million workers in the United Arab
Despite their value to both their home countries and the
societies in which they work, many migrant workers suffer from
discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Migrants, including
large numbers of women employed as domestic servants, face
intimidation and violence, including sexual assault, at the
hands of employers, supervisors, sponsors and police and
security forces. Children are especially vulnerable to labor
and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.
"Thousands of children are trafficked to the United Arab
Emirates for use as camel jockeys," " said Rory Mungoven,
global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
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Dubai: Migrant Workers at Risk