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 Freedom of Association in the United Arab Emirates

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Number of posts : 225
Localisation : France
Organisation : UL CNT Besançon
Registration date : 2006-08-20

PostSubject: Freedom of Association in the United Arab Emirates   Sun Aug 20, 2006 5:18 pm

To: Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed

We the undersigned believe that the government of the United Arab Emirates should sign up to International Labour Organisation’s core conventions 87 and 98 allowing for freedom of association and thus put a stop to the worker exploitation that takes place in the country.

The UAE is one of the richest countries in the world. It contains 98 billion barrels of oil – nearly 10% of the world’s proven reserves – and the World Bank estimated 2003 GNI/capita to be $25,300 making it about the 20th richest country on earth. A conservative estimate.

Very few share in this vast wealth. Out of a population of over 4 million, approximately 50% (exact figures have not been made available) are south Asians: mainly Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bangladeshis and Filipinos. Most are employed in unskilled positions - labourers, cleaners, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, waiters etc – and many work under extremely poor conditions.

The reasons for this are simple. There is no minimum wage in the UAE, strikes are illegal and freedom of association is not recognized as a fundamental right in UAE labour law, precluding the formation of trade unions and collective bargaining.

The absence of a national minimum wage means that companies can make use of the vast pool of cheap labour provided by impoverished south Asian countries (Nepal’s GNI/capita is $240 – 100 times smaller than the UAE’s) and base salary scales on the relative poverty of these nations. UAE law then denies these workers the right to improve their conditions by outlawing the basic mechanism – freedom of association – that is the precondition for unionization and which the International Labour Organization considers the fundamental right of any worker.

No less a business-friendly organisation than the British Chamber Of Commerce said this:

“In labour intensive business sectors (Dubai alone has 2113 construction companies) some firms compete simply on the basis of low pay. This can lead to a damaging downward spiral of low wages and poor standards which is detrimental to both businesses and workers.”

Furthermore that statement was made in reference to the UK, a country with a strong history of unionization. In the UAE - a country with an economic strength similar to the UK’s, but where unions are banned - an immigrant labourer can expect to earn 20 to 25 pounds for an 84 hour week. By comparison, in the UK, a labourer on minimum wage would earn 420 pounds. This is, of course, a crude comparison which takes no account of differences in national statistics, but even a readjustment in line with purchasing power parity would make no material difference to the disparity.

If the market is allowed to set salary scales without socially conscious legislation, the result is inevitably to the detriment of the unskilled workforce. The situation is exacerbated when low wages are compounded by poor working conditions and made worse still when these workers are disenfranchised and have no means to bargain collectively for improvements.

UAE labour law does not protect the immigrant workers working in the UAE. On the contrary it is so lax as to actually facilitate the exploitation that occurs daily. It is not difficult to find stories of workers working without contracts, doing unpaid overtime or having their passports confiscated by their employers. Nor is it sufficient to counter these assertions with the argument that such practices are illegal under UAE labour law, if the very same labour law does not provide workers with a viable means of reporting the abuses. (On paper workers are allowed to submit complaints to the Federal Ministry Of Labour and Social Affairs but since many of these workers are forced to work 7 days a week and speak neither Arabic nor English it is difficult to see how they would ever be able to do so.)

Since the first oil was exported from Abu Dhabi in 1963, the country has gone from strength to strength under the wise guidance of the late Sheikh Zayed. Only last year the country’s GDP increased by 12% in 2003 making it the third biggest Arab economy after Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Figures for 2004 are expected to show a similar growth. It is now the most open market economy in the Gulf, attracting billions of dollars of foreign investment. Tourism revenue in Dubai rose a staggering 49.9% last year. None of this could have been achieved or could be sustained without the efforts of the unskilled immigrant workers.

Were they to stop work for just one day, the country would grind to a halt. That is a fact.

We believe their salary scales and working conditions should reflect the fact that they are a key and indispensable part of the workforce. We believe that the best way to ensure this would be for the UAE government to sign ILO conventions 87 and 98, which guarantee the right to freely associate. Market forces would still set wages but migrant workers would have the fundamental right to bargain collectively, thereby protecting themselves from abuses and facilitating the negotiation of a fair wage; a wage takes into account the wealth of the UAE and not simply the poverty of their own lands.

Signing up to these ILO conventions would be entirely in keeping with the UAE’s image as a modern, open and progressive state and we respectfully ask that you take our views into consideration and think seriously about taking this step. It would be a brave one, but ultimately compassionate, logical and to the benefit of all concerned.

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