After numerous protests by unpaid workers and local news stories about the poor working conditions of the emirate's expatriate labourers, Abu Dhabi has been working hard in 2006 to rectify the situation.
In the UAE as a whole, there are 4.5m expatriate workers, making up about 85% of the total population. While employment practices vary from emirate to emirate, and indeed even between employers, Abu Dhabi, as seat of the UAE federal government, is leading the way in national labour reform.
As throughout most of the Gulf, expatriate workers are not considered immigrants but temporary labourers. Upon arrival, they have no right to permanent residency and they remain in the country at the discretion of their employer, who sponsors their work visas and often confiscates their passports - a practice that can open the door to serious abuses which a labourer can often do little to counter.
But Abu Dhabi is now working to improve the situation of its foreign workers. Indeed much of this effort may just be directed towards boosting recognition of the need for change. For example, a summer 2005 ban on working in construction during the hottest mid-day hours, during which temperatures can climb above 40 C, was largely ignored by employers, with the law also not being adequately enforced.
However, there are now signs of change. On March 7, the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, after a thorough review by the Abu Dhabi Health Services Authority, approved a proposed mandatory annual medical insurance policy for expatriate labourers, to be implemented in two phases over the next two years.
Also on March 7, the UAE Human Rights Association was launched at the Abu Dhabi General Authority for Culture and Heritage. Despite being marred by protests from some of its members, the association set off with an ambitious programme.
The association was set up under Ministerial Decree No. 8 on February 18, 2006, by Minister of Social Affairs Mariam Mohammed Khalfan al-Roumi, and will be headquartered in Abu Dhabi.
The association has set out many tasks, according to the Khaleej Times, including raising awareness of human rights and the rights of individuals residing in the UAE, and to provide them with a "secure environment". More specifically, it is setting out to "provide socio-economic and political justice and spread awareness among individuals regarding their rights and duties towards... the country."
The UAE's efforts have no gone unrecognised in other parts of the Arab world. Khalifa Mattar al-Kaabi of the UAE has now been nominated deputy chairman of the Arab Labour Organisation (ALO). The UAE has ratified two agreements under the ALO - No. 18, which concerns child labour, and No. 19, regarding work inspection. The announcement came at the 33rd meeting of the organisation in Morocco, which was held last month.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, March 9, Salim al-Khaili, director-general of the Naturalisation and Residency Department, told the Khaleej Times that fees for all types of visas, residency or any other immigration services will not be raised this year in the UAE, and workers that are resident in one emirate but work in another no longer have to travel to their emirate of residency for immigration transactions as of June 2006. A new electronic network will be installed to store all information centrally so it can be accessed by any immigration office. Al-Khaili also said that new services would be launched with a view to increasing customer satisfaction.
The changes in immigration services are coming at the behest of Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is pushing for the upgrading of all public services in the emirate.
Another major improvement regarding foreign labourers is the advent of the new internal work permit, which is issued to foreign workers giving them legal status to remain in the country and continue to work upon finding a new employer. The Ministry of Labour launched the programme in December and has so far issued 63 internal work permits.
Though all of these measures combined show a strong willingness on the part of the federal and Abu Dhabi governments to improve labour conditions, problems remain. Some companies are reportedly having difficulties transferring residence visas for their employees into ordinary residency. It is unclear how this affects the operations of the companies involved, or if any workers have faced deportation as a result.
However, on the whole, conditions seem to be slowly improving, as Abu Dhabi continues with its ambitious development efforts.