x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE praised for progress on rights

A UN migration chief praises the Government's efforts to improve conditions for foreign workers, days before UAE officials appear before the UN's Human Rights Council.

NEW YORK // A UN migration chief has praised the Government's efforts to improve conditions for foreign workers, days before UAE officials appear before the UN's Human Rights Council. Hania Zlotnik, the director of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs' population division, welcomed the UAE's efforts on overseas workers' rights.

But some activists have criticised aspects of working, living and wage conditions for the migrant workforce, and this week UAE officials will face the Human Rights Council. "No country that goes in front of this human rights body is found to be perfect," said Ms Zlotnik. "The fact that the Government is engaging in the process by which it can correct its problems shows it is willing to improve conditions for migrants."

Ms Zlotnik was joined by Saqr Ghobash, the Minister of Labour, at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Manila last month. Mr Ghobash told delegates Government officials had been addressing tensions between the UAE and nations that provided its workers. At the UN this week, Esteban Conejos Jr, the Philippine migration undersecretary, said a UAE pilot migration scheme, a three-way co-operation deal between the UAE, India and the Philippines, had helped countries respond to Gulf labour needs and gain more from remittances, or money sent home by expatriate workers.

Ms Zlotnik praised the Government for engaging with the international community, taking part in the October Manila summit and "communicating with the countries of origin so they can better manage migration". The Government has already submitted an 18-page report that deals extensively with migration and labour issues before its appearance at the Human Rights Council tomorrow. The inquiry is a routine process for all UN members, called the universal periodic review.

The report says the Government is cracking down on companies that violate workers' rights, with an increasing number of officers conducting 122,000 inspections last year, and fining 8,588 firms for violations. Labour officials ensure workers receive decent accommodation and health insurance, and can resolve disputes easily and efficiently, the report says. The Government is also clamping down on human trafficking, starting 10 prosecutions for it by the end of last year.

But members of the UN's 47-nation human rights body in Geneva will also refer to a second report listing submissions from seven non-governmental organisations that criticise the Government's record. A 12-page report combines contributions from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Mafiwasta and Alkarama for Human Rights. The document describes migrants being forced into "debt bondage" by corrupt employers, "commonplace" illegal retention of workers' passports and the absence of trade unions preventing migrants from negotiating a better deal.

The advocacy groups are pressing members of the Human Rights Council to pose tough questions about migrant violations to UAE officials. But Ms Zlotnik said the Government's apparent willingness to "talk a new language on validating the rights of migrants" means it will probably pass the questioning with ease. While UAE leaders devote attention to migrants' rights, leaders in the developing world are more concerned about people's job-hunting prospects overseas.

The World Bank has predicted remittances sent by overseas workers will stagnate or drop next year, with developed countries tightening immigration rules as their economies slide into recession. Mr Conejos said colleagues were devising contingency plans to prepare the archipelago for a reduced need for maids and other domestic workers in the UAE and other parts of the Gulf. "We expect? the economic downturn will first impact each household's ability to hire domestic workers," he said.

Ms Zlotnik said the potential burst of a property bubble in Dubai and Abu Dhabi could also reduce the number of migrant workers needed in the construction industry. But she said the Emirates could not function without a constant stream of overseas labour, as the vast majority of the country's population is expatriate - 80 per cent, according to official figures. jreinl@thenational.ae