UAE watchdog says UN labour report lacks credibility

Member of National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking questions methods behind ILO report and says findings are anecdotal.

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ABU DHABI // A member of the UAE’s human traffic watchdog has said an international study into the treatment of workers in the Emirates lacks credibility.

Dr Saeed Al Ghafli, of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, criticised the methods behind the UN International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) report Tricked and Trapped, presented this week in Jordan.

Dr Al Ghafli, also assistant under secretary for FNC Affairs, said the report relied on indicators rather than statistics.

He said its findings were merely anecdotal as the researchers had interviewed only 65 key witnesses and 61 migrant workers.

The report pinpointed the “kafala”, or sponsorship system, as a cause of exploitation and said there was a lack of laws and governance.

But it “did not rely on clear scientific method … it relied on talk from the street”, Dr Al Ghafli said. “Everyone at work has problems.

“The picture is not that bad. There is a problem but the labour market in the UAE is in a good position.”

He said there were safeguards for workers who felt they had been exploited, channels for them to voice grievances, and that the law looked after any victims of the system.

The report said kafala created an “unequal power dynamic between the employer and the worker”.

“Employers justify the retention of passports and confinement in the home on the basis of the kafala system, which gives them legal responsibility for the residency and employment of their domestic workers,” it said.

While admitting kafala was not perfect, Dr Al Ghafli said it guaranteed a number of intrinsic rights to workers, and he stressed that holding on to passports was illegal.

“You must give them accommodation, health insurance, and if they die they must be sent to their country,” he said. “Kafala is even in America. If you want to work in America you would need a work permit – this is the kafala system.

“The name is different, but it links worker to work.”

Without the system, the labour market would be dysfunctional, Dr Al Ghafli said.

He said the Ministry of Labour worked to protect workers and had set up a unit in every large labour camp for all complaints, and ran a hotline for workers to report any problem. It has also set up a human-trafficking department to investigate exploitation.

The ministry has more than 400 inspectors, Dr Al Ghafli said.

“If the matter reached exploitation, no doubt the human-trafficking law would protect and punish accordingly,” he said.

The human-trafficking law is being amended to enshrine victims’ rights, including the right to psychological help and shelter. The changes are being discussed at the FNC, and Dr Al Ghafli said they would be enacted very soon.

The report said workers were still being forced to pay recruitment fees or being lured to the UAE on the promise of non-existent jobs. The ministry accepts that such situations, while illegal, have not been entirely stamped out.

Dr Al Ghafli said workers hired under such conditions did have means of redress once they reached the UAE. The law was on their side and they could turn to the ministry or their consulate.

Also in the report were claims that those who came to the UAE to find no job waiting for them, and were pushed into forced labour including prostitution, were unlikely to seek help from the authorities for fear of deportation.

He reassured that victims of such crimes would not be deported.

“These people [who are sexually exploited] are afraid, they feel if they complain they will face prison. This is not true,” he said.

“The victim is a victim, not a criminal. The law … is very clear, they are a victim. They go to the shelter, not to court, unless there is a case. The victim never accused.”

The ILO called for minimum wages, hours of work, leave entitlements, benefits, health and safety rights, and rights of representation to be stipulated in employment contracts.

Dr Al Ghafli presented his remarks on the report to the first regional conference on human trafficking, in Amman this week. He said the report did not differentiate between exploitation of workers and contractual problems.

“This is one thing and that is another,” he said. “It shows this problem might be exploitation, so they count it as exploitation.”

He pointed out that of the 359 workers interviewed for the report, 266 were considered as possible trafficking cases. In that case, Dr Al Ghafli said, 80 per cent of the labour market in the UAE may have been trafficked – which was obviously not the case.

He said human trafficking needed to be fought in workers’ home countries.

"One hand cannot clap," Dr Al Ghafli said. "If we are working alone we cannot stop this."