When the Labour Ministry said in January that it was time to "get to the bottom" of the nation's labour problems, advocates for the nation's millions of guest workers were optimistic. "The intention here is very noble," said MK Lokesh, the Indian ambassador. "But we wish they would quicken the pace."
In the past two years there have been effective labour protection policies put in place - chiefly the wage protection system that requires that workers' salaries are deposited into bank accounts - but there are issues that still need to be addressed. As The National reports today, some foreign workers continue to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous recruitment agents. Contracts signed in home countries prior to departing for the UAE are often torn up and reissued at lower wages and with fewer benefits than those originally agreed upon.
Workers from any nation, regardless of skill level, have a basic right to review binding contracts before they make a decision to move here. By the same token, employers have a responsibility to honour documents signed during the recruitment process. And when these agreements are ignored, government regulators have to be there to protect exploited workers.
Housekeepers and other domestic staff may have the hardest time defending their interests. Unlike most foreign workers protected by the Ministry of Labour, domestic staff fall under rules administered by the Ministry of Interior. These rules only specify who can sponsor or employ a maid; there are far too many gaps in the laws about working and living conditions.
Domestic staff obviously deserve the same protections as any other workers, ranging from a mandatory weekly day off and reasonable limits on working hours to wage guarantees and a fair process to resolve grievances. Last week, The National reported on a Philippine advocacy group that is trying to help a housemaid - who has not been paid or had a day off in three years. Those kinds of cases cannot be allowed to fall through the cracks.
Labour law involving expatriates is a complicated matter, involving both the host and the country of origin. But where UAE law is on the books, it has to be enforced and workers provided with the means to have their grievances redressed.