The UAE labour minister, Ali al-Kaabi, said on Thursday that the government is working on a law that will allow labourers to form unions and legalise collective bargaining.

The move comes after criticism in a report from a New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, for abusing the rights of hundreds of thousands of low-wage labourers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and other Asian countries.

The group called for Washington and Brussels to delay free trade agreements until improvements are made.

The group's regional director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said workers are treated as "less than human".

Increasing worker protests and unrest, including a riot last week on the construction site of a building meant to be the world's tallest, are the result of wage shortages, dangerous working conditions, squalid living quarters in desert camps and a lack of legal protections and rights, the group said.


"The government is turning a blind eye to a huge problem. If it doesn't start taking drastic new steps to improve conditions, further unrest seems inevitable," Whitson said.

Official response

 

A government official said the rights group's premise was misguided and backward.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the growing number of protests were being triggered by a government drive to improve workers' lives and punish abusive and negligent companies.

Local media said 8840 workers
died in site accidents in 2004

Regarding the proposed labour reforms, Kaabi said: "Labourers will be allowed to form unions. We're going to have one union, with separate representatives for the construction, fishing, agriculture and other industries."
 

Under UAE laws, labour unions are illegal and workers have no rights of collective bargaining.

Kaabi said the UAE was in negotiations with the International Labour Organisation over changes to the current labour laws. He said he expected the proposed labour law to be in place by the end of the year.

Labourers live and work in similar conditions to the UAE elsewhere in the Gulf, but protests are less common, officials say, because those governments crack down hard on labour unrest.

Royal connection

The UAE, which sees itself as a rising power in trade, banking, tourism and investment, has grown increasingly sensitive to criticism of its labour practices, and has worked to address abuses cited by the US and human-rights groups.

The country's Labour Ministry issued new rules last year saying that companies delaying salaries or shortchanging workers would be named publicly, a step seen here as drastic since many firms have connections to Emirati royal families.

"The government is turning a blind eye to a huge problem. If it doesn't start taking drastic new steps to improve conditions, further unrest seems inevitable"

Human Rights Watch

The rules spurred a flurry of largely successful street marches and demonstrations, a strategy increasingly seen by workers as the best way to improve their lot.

Labour officials here say they detect radical tactics of Indian and Pakistani organised labour and are moving to stop the unrest.

Officials with a new labour department set up to deal with grievances reported that nearly 20,000 workers filed complaints with the government about unpaid salaries and labour camp conditions last year, Human Rights Watch said.

 

The group cited local media reports that found as many as 880 deaths occurred at construction sites in 2004. Government figures show only 34 construction deaths in 2004, the report said.