Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in the UAE in February 2006, interviewing at length 60 construction workers in the emirates of Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman. These workers detailed experiences ranging from how they were recruited in their home countries to their working and living conditions in the UAE.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed government officials, lawyers, journalists, health professionals, and foreign diplomats knowledgeable about the situation of migrant workers. Our researchers also met with employers, and visited the Labor Ministry (to see where workers lodge their official complaints), various construction sites, hospital wards, and labor camps where construction workers are housed.
Because of the general lack of institutions of civil society and nongovernmental organizations in the UAE, no comprehensive reports based on field work are available on the situation of migrant workers in the UAE, except for a few academic dissertations on the topic.2 As a result, Human Rights Watch researchers did not have any access to local organizations that have systematically researched and documented the conditions of migrant workers or advocated on their behalf. To gain a more rounded picture of labor issues, Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 unskilled migrant workers working outside of the construction sector. Although their testimonies are not included in this report, their accounts confirmed that the exploitation of migrant workers is not limited to construction workers, and indicate that further research into the conditions of all migrant workers in the UAE is required. Given the finite period and the limited scope of this research by Human Rights Watch, we believe our findings cover only a small portion of the exploitation of migrant workers in the UAE.
During our research in the UAE, we encountered a general atmosphere of fear among all migrant workers whom we interviewed. All of them asked that their full name not be used because the government could easily deport them. They also expressed fear that their employers might punish them because of their testimonies. Where last names of interviewees do not appear, they have been withheld upon interviewees request.
Note on Terminology: The term migrant worker, according to international law, refers to a person who is engaged in remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.3 Accordingly, Human Rights Watch considers foreign nationals who live and work in the UAE under term-limited contracts, for a specific employer, as migrant workers.
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families explicitly states that seasonal worker, project-tied worker, and specified-employment worker, who earn remuneration as a result of their activity in a State where they are not a national, are all considered migrant workers.4 Although the UAE is not a party to the Convention, this is an authoritative source of international law on the definition of migrant worker.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch of September 28, 2006, the government of the UAE argued that workers hosted by the UAE and other [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries cannot be considered migrant workers, as they work on a temporary basis and according to fix-term employment contracts Therefore, the immigration laws applicable in the western countries cannot be applied to these workers.5
This report documents abuses against migrant construction workers in the UAE based on violations of international law as well as UAE law. Immigration laws of Western countries have no bearings on the findings and recommendations of this report.
2 See, for example, Zina Al-Askari, Labour Relations and Reform in the UAE: The Case of Migrant Construction Workers, MSc dissertation, University of London, September 2005.
3 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers Convention), adopted December 18, 1990, G.A. Res. 45/158, annex, 45 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49A) at 262, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990), entered into force July 1, 2003, art. 2.1.
4 Ibid., art. 2.2.
5 Letter from Ambassador Abdulaziz Nasser Al-Shamsi, permanent representative of the UAE to the United Nations, to Human Rights Watch, September 28, 2006.