DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates said late last month that planned new regulations would improve the condition of migrant workers, after an international rights group slammed the government for failing to end abusive practices.
The plight of mostly Asian workers, who are allegedly badly treated across the Gulf, has gained fresh attention in the UAE's booming city-state of Dubai, where several public protests and strikes have been staged over the past year.
Unrest erupted last week near the site of one of the city's emerging landmarks.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, citing as many as 880 deaths on construction sites in 2004, accused the government of turning a blind eye to a "huge problem" and warned that the UAE would face more unrest unless action was taken.
The group said the government was unwilling to make a real commitment to stop systematic abuses by employers, including the extended non-payment of wages, the denial of proper medical care and the squalid conditions in which most migrant workers live.
And it called on the US, the European Union and Australia - which are all negotiating free trade agreements with the UAE - to include enforceable workers' rights provisions in the accords.
Ali al-Kaabi, the UAE labour minister, acknowledged that some companies were not respecting the rights of workers but insisted that violations were not systematic.
He told the FT a series of actions had been agreed recently to correct the wrongdoing.
An amendment to the labour law awaiting cabinet approval would pave the way for the establishment of a labour union, he said, and new regulations would require companies to pay workers through cash dispensing machines, giving the authorities a quick audit of companies that are delaying payments. Compulsory health insurance will go into effect by the end of this year.
Foreign workers make up nearly 90 per cent of the UAE labour force and most low-skilled jobs are performed by cheap workers from India and other Asian countries.
The work conditions of the cheap labourers represent the unpleasant side of Dubai's phenomenal development as a trade and financial hub and a leading tourism attraction.
"Good labour practices would help the business environment and [economic] growth but, unfortunately, the two are moving in very opposite directions," said Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
According to HRW, most construction workers secure jobs by taking loans from recruiting agencies in their home countries and many use a large portion of their wages to repay the loans.
But because employers allegedly routinely deny labourers their monthly wages, the workers take on more debt to repay the agencies, ending up in virtual debt bondage.