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Education is vital on labour rights

The UAE's labour law protect workers well – but they must know their rights and know how to defend them, if the law is to work as intended.

To labour reformers in the UAE, Samuel Picardal represents both sides of an intractable problem. For one, it's encouraging that the Filipino hospital clerk was confident enough in his legal rights to go public when his wages were illegally slashed last year, as The National reported yesterday. Yet it is discouraging that, after so many months working to end illegal contract substitution, the practice Mr Picardal fell victim to continues.

Contract swaps - duping employees into signing contracts with fewer benefits or lower wages than originally promised during the recruiting process - remain a common practice of unscrupulous employers. Migrante-UAE, a Filipino rights group, fields about a dozen contract complaints a month. Indian recruits, who make up about 30 per cent of the UAE's workforce, are particularly vulnerable. Last year, the Indian government launched a programme to digitise contracts for their citizens. And at the Indonesian embassy, officials have long advocated standardised contracts to protect migrant workers.

In response to these and other concerns, the UAE Ministry of Labour has done a lot to protect foreign workers once they arrive. In January 2011, new regulations were introduced to give employees a legal right to review contracts - including details on pay and job descriptions - before they are recruited. These regulations, along with initiatives such as the midday break rule and the Wage Protection System, have greatly improved working conditions.

The problem is that too few workers understand their rights, or trust the system to protect them. Mr Picardal, whose original contract for Dh1,300 in a month was reduced to Dh620 after his arrival, says he was taken advantage of because he "knew nothing about the UAE's labour laws". He eventually filed a successful complaint, but no other employee has followed suit.

Convincing more workers like Mr Picardal to come forward must be the focus of labour reforms now. Many labourers may not be able to read Arabic or English, so regulations should be made available in a variety of common languages, including Hindi, Urdu and Tagalog. Rules should also be clearly explained at the time contracts are handed out.

Laws designed to shield against illegal recruiting practices are critical to building a modern, equitable and fairly compensated workforce. Laws do little good when people are not aware of their rights.

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