Wide-ranging strategy to boost workers' rights
DUBAI // The rights of millions of workers are to be further enhanced by a joint project between the Ministry of Labour and the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO).
The project will result in recruitment agencies facing new federal regulation and will provide standards for the operation of private agencies in the country. It will also give the Government the authority to monitor their activities.
Humaid bin Deemas, the executive director for Labour Affairs at the Ministry of Labour, said: "We consider recruitment agencies the main gate for our labour market, and it would serve as a safety valve if we are able to manage and regulate them.
"We are committed to ensuring that this gate is not the entry point for any form of exploitation of workers."
As part of the initiative, the ILO has also discussed the establishment of a pension fund for expatriate workers in order that the Government can guarantee workers get end-of-service benefits.
About four million workers are registered at the UAE's Ministry of Labour, but the total workforce is far larger due to workers in free zones who are registered separately.
"Our current regulations need development to be more comprehensive and complete," Mr bin Deemas said.
"The regulations need to define clearly the role of the agency, employer, as well as the ministry.
"The other important element we need to work on is ensuring the implementation of regulations and how to best develop our regulatory tools," Mr bin Deemas said.
"To this end, we sought the expertise of the ILO."
The initiative is part of the ILO's Decent Work Country Programme, which the Government is to embark on in cooperation with the ILO. The strategy will be implemented in at least two cycles, each lasting three years, starting from the beginning of next year and ending in 2016.
"This dialogue with the ILO - and other local partners from several ministries and authorities - aims to reach an agreement on how to develop and implement the strategy of decent work," Mr bin Deemas said.
He said cooperation with the ILO is part of the ministry's strategy and a top priority.
"We have agreed to create a general framework for this strategy which is centralised around four main elements: Emiratisation, protection of workers, development of the labour market and social dialogue," Mr bin Deemas added.
"An institutional framework for recruitment agencies at a country level is needed," said Maurizio Bussi, the deputy regional director for Arab States at the ILO, during a one-week visit to the UAE.
"Recruitment agencies in the country are not functioning the way they should at the moment," he said.
"That is why the UAE will be developing this national strategy.
"The idea is to put in place policies, legislations and implementation and supervision regulations for recruitment agencies."
The new legislation, said Mr Bussi, will allow agencies to play a more constructive role in creating a labour market free of exploitation.
"The idea is that the agencies will have a self-regulatory mechanism and a code of practice. This will ensure, for example, that they know how fees are calculated and that no unlawful deductions are made.
"The ILO will provide the government with technical advice on how to draft policies and regulations, as well as give them the tools for monitoring the operation," he said.
The regulatory standards will deal with issues of licensing by defining who can apply for a licence, as well as setting standards for the validity and extensions of those licences.
The UAE government is also looking at a system of incentives for agencies to encourage them to comply with the rules, according to Mr Bussi. The move should go some way to reducing the exploitation of workers, which in many cases is caused from the start by conditions of the recruitment process in their home countries.
"We will also work together to develop the capacity of the Ministry of Labour to carry out inspections and ensure the drafted policies are implemented," Mr Bussi said.
"We want inspections to be an effective tool for enforcement of the law," Mr bin Deemas said.
Once the projects start, several technical advisers from the ILO will be based in the UAE to work with the ministry to develop the skills of inspectors. Mr bin Deemas added that recruitment is the joint responsibility of both the receiving country and the sending country, and stressed the need for more collaborative efforts.
Nasser Munder, the Filipino labour attache in Abu Dhabi, said national legislation for the operation of recruitment agencies in the emirates would lead to better protection of its expatriate workers.
"It would help address the problems of contract fraud, including contract substitution and the deployment of workers upon arrival to different jobs than those they were promised," Mr Munder said.
"This is a very positive step forward," said Samir Khosla, the vice chairman of Dynamic Staffing Services, a recruiting agency.
"I would suggest the single, largest loophole is with companies who are accepting of exploitation of workers. And essentially it is their justification that they are not responsible for a worker's debt before they arrive here. That seems like a reasonable stance, except when you look at the cost of recruitment."
Companies often choose agents who offer to undercut the cost of hiring workers by charging the workers to recover costs, instead of the company. It helps boost a company's profits but the burden of debt falls on the worker. Legally, the companies are supposed to pay entirely for the employment of a worker.
* With additional reporting by Ramona Ruiz and Suryatapa Bhattacharya
Published: October 8, 2010 04:00 AM