It is telling that Human Rights Watch chose to unveil the chapters of its annual world report on Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and the UAE in Dubai. The UAE provides a platform for them that other nations in the region either cannot or will not. The paradox is that organisations such as HRW are often most aggressive in their criticism of societies where they have the freedom to do so. But the complexity of labour issues and the progress the UAE has made in addressing them is often lost in HRW's reports. Equivalencies are often implied that are not justifiable. The false imprisonment and forced labour prevalent in some nations is often lumped in with far less grievous matters in the UAE.
Indeed, it is far easier to make headlines than to strengthen the laws and institutions that will improve the lot of workers in the Emirates. In forging ahead with reform, the Emirates understands that it is not above reproach and that significant work remains. With the downturn, the pages of The National have reported the plight of workers denied their wages, rights, and in one case, enough food to eat. Enforcement of the labour law is still uneven. But the country, the authorities and the press are aware of this and there continue to be demonstrable gains.
Take the new wage protection system (WPS), which is particularly deserving of praise. It provides electronic, and thus verifiable, payment to blue collar workers. The effect has been instantaneous. Workers used to be paid in cash, with little or no book-keeping. This opened the door for abuse by cash-strapped or greedy companies or for skimming by middlemen. The success of WPS underscores that the solution to certain violations is often as simple as closing obvious loopholes.
But often the solutions are far more complex. Among the criticisms of the labour market is that unlawful recruiting fees siphon the wages promised to workers and that the sponsorship system limits their mobility. But the fraudulent fees and false promises typically originate outside this country, and not by representatives of companies based here who can be taken to task. Some companies have taken to recruiting workers themselves to resolve the issue. The services that many sponsors provide for their workers are precisely what entices so many of them to come to this country; while sponsors who cover room and board allow many men and women to send money home. Still, many companies continue to hold workers' passports in violation of the labour law. But the alternative may not be simply to allow labourers responsibility for their passports. Theft is a massive problem in labour accommodation, and the sale of stolen passports is an obvious and immediate security threat.
These issues and others have few easy answers, which is why the UAE must continue to tackle them in a deliberate and thorough fashion, even if that doesn't make headlines.