UAE labour law reforms fail to address abuses of workers’ rights


New labour laws due to be implemented in February 2022, touted to be the biggest update to the UAE’s labour relations, fail to meet international standards for workers’ rights.

Lack of consultation with workers and the absence of social dialogue between workers, employers and the government mean there will be no change to the kafala system of modern slavery.

“The UAE could learn from the experiences of its neighbours like Qatar, where a modern industrial relations system has been developed that dismantles the kafala system of modern slavery and gives workers a voice and the means to settle grievances through functioning labour courts that allow fair access for workers,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary.

The ITUC is calling on the UAE government to

  • end the kalafa system of modern slavery;
  • introduce a non-discriminatory minimum wage;
  • abolish the need for employer permissions to leave the country by allowing workers to deal directly with the government in cancelling their residence visas;
  • include domestic workers in the labour law; and
  • establish a functioning labour court with grievance procedures.

“Hosting the Dubai Expo 2020 has increased the risks of modern slavery for governments, international organisations, and businesses with pavilions and associated events at the Expo. These proposed labour law changes will do nothing to alleviate the risks for the government and business. The laws and practice of labour rights in the UAE must be in compliance with the international labour standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO),” said Sharan Burrow.

Ratification of the 2014 Protocol to the ILO Forced Labour Convention (C029) would be an important step to show the UAE’s commitment to reform.

“Without social dialogue, the UAE is not serious about reform. These laws do nothing to end recruitment fees, debt bondage, and non-payment of wages, which have been normalised in the UAE and enslave workers. Domestic workers are excluded from the labour law, in contravention of international standards. Labour courts which don’t enforce or resolve cases leave workers unable to seek justice or remedy,” said Sharan Burrow.

The ITUC’s annual Global Rights Index has rated the UAE with “no guarantee of rights” for workers since 2014. These abuses include, but are not limited, to the following:

  • 700 migrant workers from Africa were detained and deported in June 2021, denied access to legal or medical support.
  • 50% of construction workers surveyed in Dubai indicated that they did not receive their wages on time and were denied adequate overtime payments.
  • Workers report contract violations and irregularities, thousands of dollars in fees, an inability to change jobs, and wage discrimination based on nationality.

“Fear and intimidation of workers in the UAE can only be ended with workers having a voice in the workplace and a voice in shaping labour law reforms. Allowing workers to collectively document cases and have access to worker representatives, along with resolution of disputes, is the basis for any reform programme. It’s time for the UAE to get serious about modernising its labour laws and engage in social dialogue, instead of enshrining medieval practices into its 2022 laws,” said Sharan Burrow.