x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New labour laws are solid first step

Changes that require employers to put a deposit down to ensure that wages are paid to their employees are the latest reform to the UAE's labour law.

For DB, a Nepali taxi driver in Abu Dhabi, the road to financial freedom began with a recruiting fee. To land a job in the Emirates, DB says he paid a Kathmandu-based "travel agency" the equivalent of Dh10,000 for his papers to be processed. Once he started work, it took him roughly four months to pay it back. "We are like cows," he said during a recent shift, "getting milked" at every turn.

Paying a fee for the opportunity to earn a livable wage in the Gulf is not uncommon for foreign labourers. It may also be a thing of the past.

As The National reported yesterday, recruitment fees and other "malpractises" are being phased out by the Ministry of Labour. The changes mean that agencies who provide labour outsourcing services in the UAE will now be held partly responsible for the workers they sign. Among the most notable changes, recruiters will have to put down a Dh1 million deposit, and Dh2,000 per employee, that can be drawn upon to pay workers' salaries if the company fails to do so. The law also stipulates that workers be given the opportunity to review their contracts before departing their home country. A company that flouts these laws could see its licence suspended.

These changes are just the latest in a series of reforms meant to protect the country's foreign workforce. Last year, the implementation of the Wage Protection System helped ensure the timely transfer of salaries to employee's bank accounts. Last month, federal officials made it easier for professionals to change jobs once their contracts ended or were violated. The latest, says the labour minister Saqr Gobash, is meant to bring "transparency between the employer and the employees".

Transparency is certainly a laudable goal, but the focus now must be on enforcement. Cracking down on recruiters in the back streets of Kathmandu, Mumbai, or Manila will take more than a diktat from an official in another country; it will take a commitment from labour officials in originating countries as well.

Other loopholes remain, the most egregious being protection for housemaids. Domestic help is not regulated by the Ministry of Labour, and won't be protected by these most recent regulations. This is an area that needs urgent attention.

Progress in protecting the UAE's foreign workers has been made. While clarification is needed on how the latest rules will be implemented, labour officials should be lauded for their commitment. But complete elimination of employment "malpractices" will take more than pledges.