This article was written by partner Jane Clayton and trainee solicitor Emily Colville.

The hosting of the 2022 football World Cup in Qatarhas led to considerable media and political attention on the rights of employees in that country and the surrounding region [Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’]. Here we focus on the position in one neighbouring country, the UAE, and in particular on employees’ rights to take collective action.

UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 1980, as amended, (the Labour Law) is the principal piece of legislation governing the relationship between employers and employees [U.A.E. Labour Law, Federal Law No. (8) of 1980 – Labour Law and its amendments]. Its provisions apply to both UAE nationals and migrant employees. The Labour Law clearly outlines employee rights and covers all aspects one would expect in such a law, including hours of work, annual leave, termination rights, sanctions and the handling of disputes. 

Specifically highlighted in the Labour Law (under Article 112) is the criminal nature of strikes. In the past, workers have been temporarily suspended from work without pay, as permitted by the Labour Law, or even deported for taking strike action. In 2011, 71 Bangladeshi construction workers were arrested by police and deported for instigating a week-long strike of around 5000 workers at the Arabtec construction company [UAE deports 71 Bangladeshi workers]

Further, the Labour Law does not recognise the right of workers to organise and form trade unions. However, whilst such unions are not permitted, disputes between employer and employee can be referred to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs which endeavours to resolve matters by taking on the role of adjudicator. Our experience has been that the Ministry does protect workers’ right which are enshrined in the Labour Law.

UAE ministers have always denied any accusations of poor treatment of (mainly foreign) labourers [UAE plans to form labour unions, legalise collective bargaining] and in 2006, the UAE labour minister Ali al-Kaabi announced that a new law was being drafted to allow labourers to form unions [UAE to allow construction unions]. However, the formation of labour unions still remains illegal. According to news agency Al Jazeera, supporters of Dubai’s economic model believe that a lack of collective bargaining rights is good for workers, as it leads to more growth and job creation. Supporters say that “part of the reason why countries such as France are in the economic doldrums…is because the labour market is overly regulated and employees spend more time protesting than actually working” [Striking Dubai workers face mass deportation].

Last year, a two-day strike by thousands of construction workers over pay concluded with most of those involved returning to work and, as no damage to property was caused during the strike, no salary deductions were made made[1]. The Ministry of Labour sent a team to discuss the dispute with both the workers and representatives of the employer; there was some police involvement too. This seems to indicate a change in the way matters are being handled since the aforementioned 2011 strike where a somewhat harder line was taken.

The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is a freezone in Dubai. It is unique amongst UAE freezones in that it has is its own legal system and laws, including labour laws [Employment Law, DIFC Law No. 4 of 2005]. There is no equivalent ban on striking under the DIFC’s laws. Arguably though, such a ban might be considered unnecessary since employees of companies operating within the DIFC tend to be well remunerated and in receipt of favourable employment packages.

The UAE and other Gulf countries continue to be the subject of criticism from human rights groups in respect of their labour laws which they argue fail to adequately protect employees [Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013, United Arab Emirates]. Any development of employee rights in these areas is likely to continue to be of interest to those doing business in the UAE.