United Arab Emirates: Work in progress

The United Arab Emirates have one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Hence their rising need for foreign workers, mainly in construction. Over three quarters of the inhabitants of the UAE are foreigners. They make up ninety per cent of the working population in the private sector.
These foreign workers are mainly from Asian countries like Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Arabian countries such as Egypt are also well represented. But the number one source remains India. With more than 1,2 million workers, India supplies the rich oil states that form the United Arab Emirates with the largest group of foreign workers. These workers are, in spite of their low salaries, a very important source of income for their land of origin. In 2006 about sixteen million dollars were transferred to their homeland.
The UAE have been criticized repeatedly due to the many cases of abuse that the workers have been alleged to fall victim to. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch such cases mainly concern the nonpayment of wages, the seizure of passports and even confinement or abuse.
The UAE are not democratic states. Political power lies in the hands of a small group of families who rule over the seven mini states. No elections are organized. The president and vice president are elected by the High Federal Counsel, wherein the seven families are represented. No unions are allowed, although that has never prevented demonstrations of angry workers. They protested in 2005 against the withholding of their wages.
The ministry of labour as well as the ministry of foreign affairs has taken measures during the last couple of years to improve the situation of these workers and protect their rights. In construction, workers get a longer lunch break during the summer months. The seizure of passports and the withholding of wages became a punishable offence. Workers are allowed to unite, but unions remain illegal. But despite these measures there are still many reports of abuse.
Officially, the UAE have a very low unemployment percentage of 2,4 per cent. But that figure includes all inhabitants, including foreigners. Under the “Emirates” unemployment is a lot higher. It wavers between six and fifteen per cent. To decrease this unemployment figure and to make the private market more accessible for their own population, the government started up an “emiratisation project”: a quota system that obliges companies to hire a certain amount of “Emirates”. Companies get classified according to the diversity in nationality of their workers. Companies with less than thirty per cent of their employees of the same nationality get discounts and pay less in transaction costs. Since 2005 companies with more than one hundred employees must have an “Emirate” as head of their communication department.

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