Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights in the UAE – Modern Façade, Bleak Reality

Dubai migrant workers
With the world’s tallest skyscraper Burj Khalifa in the background, Pakistani workers clean up a finished construction site on a road bridge in Business Bay area.
Photo: Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

In theory, human rights and personal liberties are protected in the United Arab Emirates. The country’s constitution and laws provide for basic liberties and promise a participatory democratic system. The constitution guarantees the protection of basic human rights, including equality before the law (Article 25), personal liberty (Art. 26), the rule of law (Art. 27), and presumption of innocence, fair trial, and freedom from abuse (Art. 28). Articles 29-34 stipulate the freedoms of movement, opinion, and free speech, communication, religion, counsel, association, occupation, trade, and profession, and the freedom from slavery and forced labour. The constitution also affirms the equal right of every citizen to hold public office (Art. 35).

The UAE has not signed most international human-rights and labour-rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. In June 2012, the UAE acceded to the Convention against Torture.

Behind the façade of the glimmering towers of Dubai, the perceived political stability and welfare, and the presence of prestigious international (Western) institutions, the human-rights picture is bleak.

Stifling Dissent in the UAE

Freedom of association is severely curtailed in the UAE. Political organizations (including political parties) and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs; about 100 such groups are registered, most of them associations for economic, religious, socialcultural, and athletic purposes. More than twenty unregistered local, non-political NGOs operate in the country. Associations are required to observe censorship guidelines and receive prior government approval for any publication. Lawful associations have little real power or influence and are generally under government control. Local NGOs lack independence or face severe limitations.

International NGOs are also facing restrictions. In April 2012, the authorities closed the Dubai office of the US-funded National Democratic Institute. Other foreign-funded pro-democracy institutes, including the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, ceased their activities on the orders of the UAE Foreign Ministry. In December 2012, the Abu Dhabi office of the RAND Corporation, an American policy-research institute, was shut down.

Since 2011, when several citizens petitioned President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for political reforms, a pattern of harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearances have emerged. Ninety-four citizens were facing trial in 2013, having been charged with running an organization aimed at overthrowing the government. Sixty-nine were convicted in July 2013. The Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced them to prison terms of seven to fifteen years. International human-rights organizations have characterized the trials as unfair, because the authorities denied family members, human-rights organizations, and international media access to the court.

The campaign against pro-democracy activists was not limited to this trial. The UAE authorities have also targeted those who campaigned for the release of the so-called UAE 94. Osama al-Najjer, the son of one of the defendants, was arrested in March 2014 and sentenced to three years in prison for Twitter posts defending his father. He had no right to appeal the verdict. In February 2015, three women, who had been campaigning on Twitter for the release of their brother Issa al-Suwaidi, disappeared. The sisters were detained and their whereabouts were unknown. On 15 May 2015, they were released, but it was unknown what pressure the three had been subjected to while in detention, whether they were charged with any offence, and whether their release carried any conditions. What is certain, according to Amnesty International, is that they have been punished for their peaceful tweets with enforced disappearance, which is a crime under international law.

UAE authorities have used the 2012 cybercrime law to prosecute these Twitter users and other critics of the government. In August 2014, the UAE issued a counter-terrorism law that will, according to Human Rights Watch, give authorities the power to prosecute as terrorists peaceful critics, political dissidents, and human-rights activists.

In addition to UAE nationals, authorities have prosecuted non-Emiratis who have lived in the country for decades. Foreign nationals from countries that have experienced dramatic changes and in which the UAE has played an important role (particularly Egypt and Libya) were deported. Others were arrested, even if they were only in transit at a UAE airport. UAE security forces arrested nine Libyans at their homes and hotels in August and September 2014, without producing arrest warrants.

This trend is part of the harsh campaign against anyone who demands political reform—including the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters—inside or outside the UAE. The UAE is one of the powers in the region, including Egypt and Libya, that oppose the Arab revolutions, especially when Muslim Brotherhood is involved.

According to the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR), this reflects alarming hostility against pro-democracy activists and the fear felt by the authorities. The AOHR has obtained testimonies from defendants to the effect that they were tortured and otherwise abused in UAE prisons. The abuses they had been subjected to amounts to torture as defined by the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The abuses include:

-solitary confinement for weeks or months in very small cells (2 x 3 metres)

-being forced to go to the public toilets blindfolded and naked

-severe beatings

-verbal abuse and death threats.

Torture is illegal and is prohibited in Article 26 of the constitution, but the UAE is criticized for permitting, investigating inadequately, or not strongly prosecuting cases of torture. UAE Sharia courts sentence to flogging persons found guilty of drug use, adultery, and prostitution, in all emirates except Dubai, where flogging is illegal.

The Plight of Migrant Construction Workers in the UAE

UAE migrant construction workers accommodation
Migrant workers from Bangladesh share a room at an apartment where they live with other workers in Abu Dhabi, April 2014. Photo (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

The human-rights picture is far from satisfactory for citizens and expatriates alike but is especially bad for migrant and foreign domestic workers, who constitute the largest demographic component of the UAE. In mid-2010 (the most recent period for which data are available), non-nationals accounted for 88.5 percent (8.26 million) of the UAE’s population.

The UAE (especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi) is bustling with major construction, including high-profile projects such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Louvre, and a campus of New York University, all located on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Dubai is currently building the infrastructure for the World Expo in 2020. However, the image the UAE is trying to cultivate—a modern, stable country attracting more than 13 million international visitors in 2014—contrasts with the reality faced by those who build its showpieces.

Despite labour reforms in recent years, migrant workers continue to be subjected to abuse that amounts to forced labour, while complaints of inadequate housing, non-payment of wages, and deportation persist, according to Human Rights Watch in its 2015 report. Despite some improvements (compared to its earlier reports in 2009 and 2012), researchers found that some workers had their passports withheld, were not paid, or were paid extremely low wages, which makes it difficult for them to pay off recruitment fees that should have been abolished in the first place.

The practice of charging workers recruitment fees has been prohibited since 1980, but Human Rights Watch, among others, has found in recent years that workers have to pay exorbitant recruitment fees to recruitment agencies in their home country or in the UAE. The UAE has since strengthened its regulation of domestic recruitment agencies, but employers are still not required to verify that they, not their workers, have paid all recruitment fees. The law prohibits recruitment agents from charging workers any fees and empowers the Ministry of Labour to force agencies to refund to the worker any fees paid. However, based on testimonies from workers in Abu Dhabi, Human Rights Watch found that workers still pay recruitment fees of $1500 to $3000.

The International Labour Organization has identified the withholding of identity documents, including passports, as a key indicator of forced labour.

Trapped in the UAE

Non-payment of wages has long been one major complaints of the workers. Despite measures by the government to ensure correct (electronic) payment, some workers in Abu Dhabi have said that they had received no salary for periods of up to five months. The labour law guarantees skilled workers a minimum wage (5000 Emirati dirhams = $1300), but low-paid (often unskilled) construction workers are excluded. The labourers say they struggle to repay the loans they had taken on in their home countries and to feed their families.

Workers are trapped in the UAE by the so-called kafala (sponsorship) system, which binds the employee to a single employer (sponsor) and prohibits the employee from switching employers or leaving the country without the sponsor’s consent. In January 2011, the government amended the law regulating the kafala system, permitting employees to change employers without penalty, but, as of mid-2015, the kafala system itself is still in place. It is one of the major problems faced by labourers, because they are entirely dependent on the whim of their employer.

The labourers’ housing facilities could not contrast more starkly with the often luxurious premises they are building in the UAE. Migrant construction workers often live in labour camps on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, segregated from the rest of society. Housing is often substandard, with cramped rooms containing bunk beds and few other facilities. During a visit to workers’ accommodations in central Abu Dhabi, researchers found 27 men living in two rooms. The men, who said they worked as painters on the New York University (NYU) site, shared two toilets, had to wash their work clothes in the bathroom, and had to store work tools and materials, including paint, in their rooms.

Labourers have inadequate access to the justice system when they have complaints, and they are under heavy pressure from their employers to stay silent, threatened with non-payment of wages or cancellation of their visas. When they do complain or decide to organize a strike, they risk arrest, detention, or—worse—deportation. Two hundred workers of BK Gulf, which does construction work on Saadiyat Island, were deported after they went on strike in October 2013 to protest low wages. In March 2015, several hundred workers staged a strike in central Dubai to demand higher wages for their work on the Fountain Views development; reportedly, no arrests were made. The UAE labour law does not guarantee workers’ rights to organize or bargain collectively, so strikes are illegal.

Despite measures taken by the authorities and new standards set by the organizations involved (NYU, Louvre, Guggenheim), the complaints mentioned above indicate that the rules are not adequately enforced.

The United Nations has been investigating the abuse of migrant workers after a complaint by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that migrants are doing construction and domestic work under conditions of forced labour.

Domestic workers are excluded from the labour law and have even fewer protections than other migrants. There have been frequent reports of abuse by employers.

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