11/14/2006, 00.00
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Dubai skyscrapers: monument to workers' exploitation

Human Rights Watch has drawn attention to abuse of migrant workers' rights in the Arab Emirates. In September a new law declared deportation for those who go on strike.

Dubai (AsiaNews/HRW) – More than 500,000 migrant workers toil in conditions of near-slavery in the building boom of the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged in a report published on 12 November.

HRW reported very low wages that sometimes are not even paid and poor occupational safety with a high number of serious, sometimes fatal, accidents. The government is not aware of the exact number of accidents, but in 2004 alone, the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh repatriated the bodies of 880 migrants who met with fatal accidents. Employers get labour from recruiting agencies that charge workers between 2,000 to 3,000 US dollars for travel, visas, government fees and their own services, although by law these costs should be covered by employers. As a result, migrant workers are indebted for years.

HRW testified to dozens of cases of migrants who were forced to accept loans with interest rates as high as 10%.The wages of construction workers range from 6 to 0 per month, although the national average wage is ,106. A 1980 law requires the government to implement a minimum wage but it has failed to do so for the past 26 years. To prevent protests, employers routinely "withhold" at least two salaries along with their passports. There is no record of a single case where an employer has been penalized for breaches of the labour law. 

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, said: "The government says workers are free to leave if they're unhappy. But with thousands of dollars of debt hanging over their heads and no options for a new job, the reality is these workers don't have much choice."  This is also because the law prohibits workers from finding new work without the go-ahead of the old employer.

Nearly all of the more than 500,000 construction workers are migrants, mostly from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to official statistics, there are 2,738,000 migrant workers in the country, making up 95% of the country's workforce.  But local sources say the real number is much higher.

On 7 November, the prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, ordered the Labour Minister, Dr Ali bin Abdullah Al-Ka'abi, to review labour legislation based on HRW recommendations.  Proposals include the setting up of a special court to resolve labour disputes, an increase in the number of government inspectors, and requiring employers to provide health insurance.

Whitson said this was a "good start", adding: "But unless the government starts to hold employers accountable for breaking the law [on work safety and workers' rights], this country's colossal new skyscrapers will be known for monumental labour violations… We hope that the government's new promise to enforce its labour laws does not share the same fate as its broken promise to legalize trade unions."

In early 2006, after a string of strikes and labour demonstrations, the government promised to respect workers' rights by legalizing trade unions (currently banned) and enforcing the country's labour laws. But HRW says nothing was done. Instead, in September it passed a new law announcing deportation of striking workers.     

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