174. There are a number of human rights concerns
in the UAE. One key area is the rights for foreign workers. As
with other countries in the region, the UAE is heavily reliant
on migrant workers: an estimated 75-80%
of the population is foreign. These workers are often excluded
from the rights afforded to nationals and are denied basic rights
such as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
175. Construction workers face particular difficulties.
Human Rights Watch recently conducted research into the problem.
The organisation found that employers routinely deny construction
workers their wages. According to official figures, in 2005 alone,
nearly 20,000 workers filed complaints about the non-payment of
wages and labour 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 to repay these loans, and without wages he falls
further into debt. The result is "virtual debt bondage".
There are also reports that death and injury at the workplace
are on the rise.
176. In a press release issued in March 2006, Human
Rights Watch called on the UAE to take immediate steps to end
abusive labour and criticised it for being "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
In particular, Human Rights Watch called on the UAE Government
- Expand its staff overseeing
migrant labour treatment (according to government sources, the
ministry of labour employs only 80 inspectors to oversee the activities
of nearly 200,000 businesses that sponsor and employ migrant workers).
- Reform its labour 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.
177. Human Rights Watch also called on the international
community to take firmer action on the issue. In particular it
called on the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia, which are
currently negotiating free trade agreements with the UAE, to:
- Require the UAE to improve
labour practices and legal standards before signing agreements.
- Include in any free-trade agreement strong, enforceable
workers' rights provisions that require parties' labour laws to
meet international standards, and the effective enforcement of
178. Following the criticism by Human Rights Watch,
the UAE government announced changes to the regulations governing
foreign workers. According to press reports, an amendment to the
labour law is awaiting cabinet approval and would pave the way
for the establishment of a labour union. New regulations would
require companies to pay workers through cash dispensing machines,
giving the authorities a quick audit of companies that are delaying
payments. Compulsory health insurance is also due to come into
effect by the end of 2006.
179. Another issue of international concern is the
use of small children as camel jockeys. The FCO's annual human
rights report commented on this issue:
There have been significant improvements during
the reporting period in the UAE. The ministry of interior has
replaced the camel racing federation as the organisation responsible
for regulating the sport. Publicity campaigns by Anti-Slavery
International and the American TV channel AHBO's Real Sports programme,
highlighting the practice of small children being used as camel
jockeys, have played a major part in persuading the federal authorities
to take such a firm stance on this issue. A prominent advertising
campaign by the ministry of interior in February 2005 announced
regulations, issued by presidential decree, prohibiting the use
of boys under the age of 16 and less than 45 kilograms as camel
jockeys. First-time offenders face fines of approximately £3,000.
A second offence carries a one-year ban from camel racing and
subsequent offences may incur prison sentences. Measures introduced
by the ministry of interior to enforce the ban include stringent
immigration checks, a requirement that all children entering the
UAE must have their own passport, and DNA testing at race meetings
of jockeys suspected of breaching the rules. These measures were
introduced at the close of the racing season. We await the start
of the new season and will seek to ensure that the regulations
are being rigorously enforced.
180. Limited press freedom is also problematic. During
our visit, we were told that there is considerable self censorship
by the press and that some subjects are strongly off bounds. The
FCO's human rights report also comments on this:
In UAE, the government exercises some restriction
in practice and journalists self-censor. UAE law prohibits, under
penalty of imprisonment, criticism of the government, ruling families,
and friendly governments, as well as other statements that threaten
social stability. There has been increased coverage by the print
media of some contentious local issues such as poor performance
of ministries and labour disputes. The presence of respected international
media operators such as the BBC, Reuters and CNN at Dubai Media
City has led to greater openness in the media, though there remains
room for further improvement.
181. In recent years, the UAE has made some progress
on women's rights. In January 1999, the wife of former ruler Sheikh
Zayid said that women would be given a role in the country's political
life. Sheikh Zayid subsequently appointed a women as Under-Secretary
of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairsthe
first woman to hold a high-ranking post. Shortly before his death,
Sheikh Zayid appointed the first female minister, Sheikha Lubna
al Qassimi, to head a combined economy and planning ministry.
In 2003, Sharjah appointed five women to its 40-seat consultative
council and increased the number to seven in 2004. However, no
women have been appointed to the Federal National Council. In
2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs increased the number of
women in the diplomatic corps to 40, equal to 17% of the service.
182. We conclude that there remain areas of human
rights concern in the UAE, notably the treatment of foreign workers.
We recommend that the Government work to encourage the UAE to
sign up to the remaining ILO rules and improve the status of foreign
workers. We further conclude that there have been serious efforts
to improve the situation of child jockeys, nevertheless, we recommend
that the Government remain seized of this issue and remind the
UAE of the need to protect children.