The UAE's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, made it his mission to treat every individual as a "special soul". Concerned as he was with the equality and happiness of all his people, he threw open his arms to hard workers of all faiths and backgrounds. Today the UAE hosts millions of guest workers from all around the world and some of those expatriates work in households as domestic workers. The recent decision by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Presidential Affairs and Head of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, to establish a dedicated prosecution unit to try cases involving the abuse of domestic workers is firmly in accordance with the legacy of Sheikh Zayed. Its timing – during the Year of Zayed – is very fitting. It follows the launch of one-day courts in Abu Dhabi in January, to speed up the judicial process for misdemeanour, labour and civil cases, reflecting the UAE's maturing criminal justice system. Increasingly, this country's courts reflect the society they protect.
Most domestic workers in the GCC have a friendly relationship with their employers and are treated with the respect they deserve. Yet the discovery last month of the body of a Filipina maid stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait, bearing the marks of torture and strangulation, was a grim reminder that not all are afforded basic kindness and respect. Those who are mistreated need avenues of recourse. The new prosecution unit will promote justice for all in this country, regardless of economic status or ethnic origin. Its creation follows September's Federal Labour Law issued by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa, which specifies fair working conditions for maids, nannies, gardeners and 16 other occupations and prevents discrimination. Harsh fines will rightly await those who abuse their employees.
It behoves all of us to protect those who make a life for themselves in the UAE and send vital funds home to their families. We must ensure that the tragic and haunting episode in Kuwait never reoccurs anywhere in the GCC. The UAE Government has shown a willingness to support and protect domestic workers. Recently established Tadbeer centres give these workers a vital outlet. The Oun initiative, launched last July by the Dubai Labour Court, offers free legal advice for the economically disadvantaged. Two years ago, Abu Dhabi Judicial Department – responsible for driving through the latest reforms – launched a means-tested scheme to pay the legal fees of low-income individuals. In a stratified labour market like that of the UAE, those who occupy the upper echelons have a duty care towards those with fewer resources. Sheikh Mansour's initiative is a vital milestone, channelling the legacy of equality and empathy left by Sheikh Zayed.