U.A.E. Eases Some Restrictions on Millions of Foreign Workers

  • Labor reform gives workers freedom to change employers
  • Reform ensures worker-emplyer relationship is voluntary

The United Arab Emirates moved to ease some restrictions on foreign workers who helped build the country’s iconic landmarks, from the tallest building in the world in Dubai to franchises of Western art museums in Abu Dhabi.

The Labor Ministry issued three decrees that ban employers from changing terms of contracts without the consent of workers, allow the workers to terminate their contracts and ensure that they can pursue other job opportunities once they leave an employer. The measures will take effect on Jan. 1

The decrees stop short of annulling a legal requirement known as kafala, under which people have to be sponsored by an employer to enter the country for work. “The issue isn’t about the legal system itself,” Labor Minister Saqr Ghobash told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. “But it’s about some of the practices that have been associated with it.”

International human rights groups such as Amnesty International have repeatedly criticized Gulf Arab monarchies, including the U.A.E. and Qatar, for the treatment of foreign laborers. Qatar, which is set to host the 2022 World Cup for soccer, is building new houses for thousands of migrant workers.

Foreign workers in the U.A.E. complain that their employers often change the terms of contracts that they signed in their home country. Leaving a job without the employer’s consent can subject the worker to a six-month ban before they’re able to join another company.

“We want to ensure that the labor relationship is entered into voluntarily,” Ghobash said.

The decrees govern 4.5 million workers under the labor ministry’s jurisdiction. The Interior Ministry oversees housemaids, while each of the seven emirates that make up the U.A.E. has its own free-zones, which are ruled by separate laws.

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