DUBAI // Human rights in the UAE deteriorated last year as the economy suffered, affecting migrant workers in particular, lobbyists alleged in a report released yesterday. Representatives from Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based watchdog, were in Dubai for the regional release of their 2010 World Report, focusing on conditions in Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, as well as the UAE.
In a swift response, the Government criticised the report as "unbalanced", questioning the accuracy of the work in a statement issued through WAM, the state news agency. Governments across the region committed "serious" violations over the last year, the organisation alleged, including targeting human-rights defenders and groups. "The combination of political tensions and economic downturn has brought a heightened hostility toward human rights in a number of Middle Eastern countries in 2009, in some cases reaching crisis proportions," said Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director.
"Instead of cracking down on people seeking their rights, these countries need to crack down on abuse and discrimination." The group's criticism of the UAE centred on labour issues, alleging that the rights of migrant workers in particular had been affected by the economic crisis, with thousands leaving the country or forced to take mandatory unpaid breaks. "The UAE Government has failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse, including unlawful recruitment fees charged to migrant workers, wages below what was promised to them and a sponsorship system that gives employers complete power over the workers," said Samer Muscati, HRW's researcher on the UAE and Iraq.
An official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the report "has major drawbacks and fails to adequately record the positive steps taken by the UAE with regard to labour and human-trafficking issues, not just in 2009, but also in the last few years". The UAE was "not averse to admitting its failures", the official added, "but finds it unsettling when genuine efforts and constructive results find little or no recognition in reports such as the one released by the Human Rights Watch".
Among the developments cited by the Government was the United Nations Human Rights Council's unanimous adoption of a report on the UAE, following its first review of rights conditions in the country. Last May, HRW claimed that workers on Saadiyat Island were being exploited, describing some cases as "forced labour". Mr Muscati alleged that part of the problem was that certain laws were not being enforced, including calls in the 1980 Labour Law for a minimum wage.
The group recommended that the Government establish an independent commission to investigate issues relating to the treatment of migrant workers, while prohibiting companies from dealing with recruitment firms that charge workers for visas and travel, which Mr Muscati described as "commonplace". During yesterday's press conference, Mr Muscati highlighted positive steps that authorities had taken over the past year, including issuing regulations on housing standards for labour accommodation.
The Wage Protection System was also mentioned as a move in the right direction in ensuring that migrant workers receive their salary. The report referred to people being jailed for debt-related issues and alleged corporate corruption, sometimes for months without charge. According to the report, more than 1,200 prisoners in Dubai Central Jail, 40 per cent of the prison population, have been convicted of defaulting on bank loans.
The establishment of an independent body to investigate allegations of torture by people in positions of power was also among HRW's recommendations. The UAE was encouraged to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been a lack of recognition of the UAE's recent ratification of other international human-rights treaties such as the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.
Mr Stork said the 2010 report detailed a "pattern of attacks" on human-rights defenders, including in the UAE, where they had not been free to form independent associations. firstname.lastname@example.org