x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Gargash focuses on rights of labourers

The UAE needs to focus on labour rights, says the man responsible for the country's first assessment of its human rights record.

Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, gestures at a press briefing on Thursday.
Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, gestures at a press briefing on Thursday.

DUBAI // The UAE needs to make more progress in labour rights, the head of the committee responsible for the country's first assessment of its human rights record said yesterday. Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Federal National Council Affairs, made the comments at a press briefing to highlight the committee's report, which is scheduled to be reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month.

"I think we have done very well over the last 18 months at responding to the criticism on labour issues," he said. "We have done well but we still need to get better." He said a potential solution could be a minimum wage, but that such a move would require careful consideration. "We need to go through the debate of whether a minimum wage would work here. There should be a dialogue on this, to address the pros and cons."

The report was compiled under the framework of a new review procedure under which the human rights records of all UN member nations will be assessed every four years. The report was compiled with the input of civil society organisations such as the General Women's Union. It includes such topics as women's rights and political participation. "Last year there was a lot of criticism of labour issues," said Dr Gargash, referring to issues raised by international rights groups. "While we have done well in this, work is still ongoing. The problem is if you don't address it."

Over the past year the Government has started to tighten labour standards, including setting up a virtual bank whereby the Central Bank ensures companies electronically transfer wages to workers. Yesterday police in Dubai also announced they had collected more than Dh52 million (US$14.1m) in unpaid labourers' wages from a number of firms and warned employers they could be blacklisted if they repeatedly failed to pay their staff.

The reforms are being driven, in part, by fears that disgruntled workers struggling to cope with low wages or irregular salary payments, as well as inflation, might take action that could threaten national security. On March 18 about 1,500 labourers from an electro-mechanical company demonstrated in the Sajaa area of Sharjah, destroying administration buildings and breaking windows in their housing complex.

Yesterday, Dr Gargash did not shy away from issues that have provoked harsh international criticism, including the treatment of the migrant labour force. But, with more than three million foreign workers in the country, according to the report, striving for labour rights will always be a "work in progress". The report identified women's rights as one area in which significant improvements had been made over a relatively short time, while stressing that progress should not be seen as an excuse to stop working for more participation by women. "From a country such as ours which is changing every day, we should be proud of our record," Dr Gargash said. "But, this is not an excuse to stand still. We should keep progressing." The committee started compiling the report before the summer, after which an early draft was circulated to government ministries, civil society organisations and a number of high-profile figures for comment. The Cabinet was also informed of the report before it was submitted to the UN council in September. Its contents were reported at that time. The UAE is scheduled to present its report to the UN council on Dec 4. Israel's human rights record is due to be reviewed on the same day. Dr Gargash said he expected some members of the council to focus on misconceptions based on the UAE being an Arab and Muslim country. "People might focus on the treatment of women, but they don't necessarily know our record," Dr Gargash said. "There might also be issues relating to our Islamic faith and we might have to address that." After the Dec 4 hearing, three members of the council - Cameroon, Indonesia and Argentina - will discuss its potential recommendations with the UAE. The non-binding recommendations are meant as benchmarks for each country undergoing the review. In March, UAE officials will return to Geneva and receive a final set of recommendations. Dr Gargash described the UAE's report as a "panoramic view" of human rights in the country from the point of view of the Government and the organisations that helped to compile it. "This mechanism is not meant to necessarily evaluate so much as develop the country's ability to deal with and improve human rights issues," said Dr Saeed al Ghufli, the executive director of the Ministry of State for Federal National Council Affairs. Two other reports, one by the UN and another by a group of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Mafiwasta, were also submitted under the new UN framework that present different views on the state of human rights in the UAE. While not entirely negative, the other reports allege violations such as prisoner abuse and discrimination. "I think it is important to note that we listed the report on the website and asked for any points from other organisations to be raised, but no one responded," Dr Ghufli said. "I don't know why the organisations didn't talk with us." The committee published its report online so that members of the public could raise issues or make comments before the December session. However, according to Dr Ghufli, the committee has received very little reaction. The full report is available in Arabic and English on the FNC ministry's website (www.mfnca.ae). zconstantine@thenational.ae