ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates is introducing labor reforms aimed at tightening oversight of employment agreements for the millions of temporary migrant workers who make up the bulk of the country's workforce, a top Emirati official said Tuesday.
Like its oil-rich Gulf Arab neighbors, the Emirates has long faced criticism over its treatment of low-paid laborers who build and staff the sleek skyscrapers, hotels and cutting-edge infrastructure in cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Critics say existing policies that tie workers to a sponsoring company leave employees open to exploitation and with limited options to leave an abusive work environment.
The reforms are being implemented through three government decrees that will take effect on Jan. 1, Labor Minister Saqr Ghobash told journalists in the federal capital, Abu Dhabi.
They focus on improving transparency of job terms and employment contracts, spell out how contracts can be terminated, and could make it easier for workers to switch employers. Ghobash said the reforms are meant to guarantee that relations between workers and employers are governed only by government-monitored work contracts and the labor law.
"We wanted to ensure that the labor relation is entered into voluntarily and freely, and for such a relationship to continue, the voluntary nature also must continue," Ghobash said through a translator. "It takes two parties to agree to enter into a work relationship, but it needs only one party to decide to end that work relationship," he said of the new regulations.
Under the new policies, prospective workers would be asked to sign a standard employment offer in their home country that would in turn be filed with the Labor Ministry before a work permit is issued. That agreement would then be registered as a legal contract once the worker arrives in the country, and no changes would be allowed unless they extend additional benefits that the worker agrees to.
Contracts could be terminated by either side under terms spelled out in a ministry decree, and once that is done workers would be free to switch to a new employer.
The seven-state Emirates federation, an OPEC member that is the Arab world's second-largest economy, is home to at least 4.5 million registered migrant workers, Ghobash said. Many of them come from South Asia, the Philippines, other Arab countries and parts of Africa. At 2.6 million strong, Indians alone far outnumber the local population.
Hundreds of thousands of Westerners, many employed in professional positions, also call the country home.
The Labor Ministry has about 500 labor inspectors charged with ensuring that companies comply with existing laws, Ghobash said.
Rights groups have long raised concerns about conditions for workers, including inadequate housing, low and late pay, the illegal confiscation of passports and limits on workers' ability to change employers. Labor unions are not allowed and strikes are illegal. Protests over working conditions do occasionally occur, however.
Laborers in April set several vehicles on fire during a protest at a construction site in the north of the country following the death of one of their co-workers. That followed a protest the previous month by South Asian workers in Dubai over a pay dispute.
Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the Emirates' new contracting process policy in particular is a clear step forward.
"If properly implemented, it will end contract substitution," he said. "The main complaint from workers is about pay. Essentially they want to be paid on time what they were promised."
The Emirates has faced intensified scrutiny of its labor practices in recent years, particularly as it embarked on high-profile projects such as an ambitious cultural district known as Saadiyat Island in the capital, Abu Dhabi. That project includes a New York University satellite campus and eventually will host branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.
Attention from labor rights activists is likely to continue as Dubai gears up to host the World Expo in 2020.
The government-backed company leading the Saadiyat Island project, the Tourism Development and Investment Co., has implemented an employment policy that spells out minimum standards for contractors. It also has built a facility that is supposed to house employees working on the project and has hired an outside auditor to monitor working conditions.
A February report by Human Rights Watch found that those measures did not go far enough to stop workers on the project from being exploited — findings that TDIC disputed. A separate audit commissioned by New York University's partner in Abu Dhabi found gaps in compliance with labor guidelines by some companies working on the university's campus, leading them to agree to compensate affected workers.
The latest reforms' success will depend heavily on how willing authorities are to ensure they are followed, McGeehan said.
"The laws are only as good as the political will to enforce them," he said. "You have to go out there and punish people who break the law."
The nearby Gulf nation of Qatar is also under intense pressure to improve labor conditions as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, and last year it announced its own labor reforms. Their implementation has been bogged down in the country's legislative advisory body, however, and the new regulations have yet to be implemented.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck