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Building Towers, Cheating Workers!

Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the
United Arab Emirates (HRW Report)

                                    Visibility of Migrant Worker Grievances

About the Report

       Safety and Hazards Recommendations

Visibility of Migrant Worker Grievances

Over the past two years, the UAE media has focused significant attention on the grievances of construction workers. Hardly a day passes when a tale of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in general and construction workers in particular does not surface in the UAE.

There are no independent organizations to monitor the construction sector or any other labour sector to report and document abuses systematically, and to advocate for migrant workers’ rights. This has produced a situation where the government and the business sector are the sole entities deciding on labor-related issues.

As is widely recognized, unions are the most important vehicle for workers to communicate grievances with relevant government bodies, to negotiate with employers, and to seek structural reforms.

"Unless the government starts to hold employers accountable for breaking the law, the UAE’s colossal new skyscrapers will be known for monumental labor violations," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

During the past two years, thousands of migrant construction workers have resorted to public demonstrations. In March, the government promised to legalize trade unions by the end of the year, but instead, in September it passed a new law banning labor strikes and announcing that it would deport striking workers.

Safety and Health Hazards

Hundreds of migrant construction workers die each year in the UAE under unexplained circumstances. The government can account only for a few of these deaths, primarily because it appears not to enforce its own laws requiring employers to report worksite deaths and injuries.

The embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh repatriated the bodies of 880 construction workers in 2004, HRW said, adding that the government can account for only a few of these deaths "primarily because it appears not to enforce its own laws requiring employers to report worksite deaths and injuries."

About the Report

'Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in the UAE in February 2006. Based on extensive interviews with workers, government officials and business representatives, this 71-page report documents serious abuses of construction workers by employers in the United Arab Emirates.

These abuses include unpaid or extremely low wages, several years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions that result in apparently high rates of death and injury.

Human rights (HRW) Recommendations

 (1) To the Governments of the United States, the European Union,
and Australia

The United States, the European Union and Australia have an important opportunity to urge the UAE to address its failure to protect workers’ rights, as they negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) with the UAE.

At a minimum, they should condition any agreement on labor law reform in the UAE that explicitly allows workers to form trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers, and establishes sufficient protections to adequately safeguard these rights. More at:
No Free Trade Pacts Without Reform!


(2) To the Governments of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka

Enhance labor departments of your embassies and consulates in the UAE to assist migrant construction workers from your country whose rights are violated by their employers.


Lack of civil society organizations, unions, and labor advocacy groups in the UAE means that migrant construction workers do not have access to any institutional resources when their rights are violated and are unable to self-organize to address the abuses. The embassies and consulates of the workers’ home countries should step in to fill this void. They should provide their nationals with guidance, translators, and legal assistance to pursue their complaints with UAE authorities.


Raise formally with your counterparts in the UAE the importance of the UAE government’s establishing an independent commission to investigate and report on labor-related abuses of migrant construction workers.


The UAE economy in general, and the construction sector in particular, is highly dependent on migrant workers. The economies of sending countries are also benefiting greatly from the migrant workers’ remittances home. The UAE and sending country governments should work cooperatively to ensure that mutual economic benefits are accompanied by improvements in workers’ rights.


Urge the UAE’s Ministry of Labor to fully implement its labor laws and to hold violators fully accountable under its laws.


Request immediate and full disclosure of causes of death when your country’s citizens suffer fatal injuries, and regular reports of all workplace injuries suffered by your citizens.


View full report at:
Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the
United Arab Emirates

The 'HRW' Report Highlights the Plight of Migrant Construction Workers
November 12, 2006  -  Press Release


This report was researched and written by Hadi Ghaemi, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. It was edited by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, Ian Gorvin, programs consultant, and Carol J. Pier, Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights senior researcher. Wilder Tayler, legal and policy director to Human Rights Watch, provided a legal review. Tarek Radwan and Assef Ashraf, associates for the Middle East and North Africa Division, provided research assistance and, with Andrea Holley, manager of outreach and publications, prepared this report for production. Additional production assistance was provided by Fitzroy Hepkins, mail manager, and Jagdish Parikh, online communications content coordinator. Zina Al-Askari provided invaluable help with research. Human Rights Watch interns Howayda Barakat, Mahmoud Ibrahim, Rupert Cowper-Coles, and Marie-Agnes Suquet helped with research and translations.



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This report is an indictment of dishonest UAE authorities, who operate without respect for the rule of law and the inherent dignity of mankind".
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