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UAE: New Draft of Domestic Worker Law pending approval

On March 30, 2017

A draft law for domestic workers is now pending approval in the UAE. The proposed law is an amendment to the 2012 draft law, which was approved by the Federal National Council but did not come into force. The new version has been approved by the UAE Cabinet and must now be passed by the Federal National Council before being signed into law by President Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Gulf News has highlighted the draft law’s main components.  Below we summarise and briefly analyse what we know of the proposed law.

Promising Moves:

  • The law outlines more categories of domestic work, which is an important step towards identifying domestic workers as employees with specific sets of skills and tasks, rather than servants. 
  • A weekly day off with full pay. Where circumstances require an employee to work on this day, he or she will be granted a day in lieu or receive overtime payment. Forthcoming regulations will set out working hours and rest breaks for every type of job, which will be a critical development to monitor. 
  • 30 days of sick leave of which 15 will be with pay.
  • No court fees – but presumably there may still be legal fees for workers seeking representation.
  • The employer is identified as responsible for occupational safety and protection from abuse and harassment, and workers' respect and dignity – though the burden of proof needed to prove negligence and penalties against erring employers are both unclear.
  • Domestic workers can end a contract if contract the terms are not met – but it is unclear how this will work in practice if workers are vulnerable to accusations of vague crimes, such as 'failing to protect employers secrets' (listed below). It is also unclear if employers who do not uphold their contracts will face any penalties.  More on this below. 
  • The law appears to provide scope for inspecting private accommodation, with a permit from the Ministry of Human Resources.

Negatives & Shortcomings: 

  • The contract between the employer & domestic worker is only required to be in Arabic – and even if it’s in other languages, it’s the Arabic version that is authoritative.
  • Disproportionate  fines are levied against workers – workers can be fined DHS100,000 (roughly USD 27,200) for failing to protect employer  ‘secrets.’  The same fines apply to those who encourage a domestic to leave his/her job – without anyway apparent consideration of the conditions that prompted an individual to encourage workers to leave. 
  • The heaviest fines seem to apply to domestic workers, people who shelter domestic workers, and placement agencies. The only fine mentioned for erring employers is a DHS10,000 (roughly USD 2,722) penalty for asking a worker to do something outside the scope of their duties – something that is likely difficult for domestic to workers to prove. 
  • A worker can end a contract of his own will – but must pay for the ticket home. In theory, this clause seems evenhanded. However, given the difficulty workers face in lodging complaints against employers, workers who endure unfair employment conditions may have no 'choice' but to end their contracts and pay a hefty sum for doing so.  

The additional caveat with much legislations in the Gulf is, of course, is enforcement. Even when laws provide more protections and rights for domestic workers, they still preserve a power imbalance that favours the employer. Some of this power imbalance is de facto – employers often speak the language of law enforcement with more fluency than workers and have the financial means to fight harder. But a good law is written cognizant of its enforcement environment and should take into consideration the practical limitations that workers face not only in reporting abuse but in accessing justice. And of course, should protect workers from employment abuses in the first place.

The second caveat with legislation is the absence of transparency; with severely restricted journalistic freedoms, and further, with laws that criminalise anything to be seen as supporting an absconded worker, or anything perceived as “defamatory,” we only have the government’s reporting to benchmark progress. While stories of gruesome physical abuse do make their way to papers, as do occasional, opinion pieces on domestic workers, there is extremely limited freedom to criticise or even monitor government enforcement.

The new law, if enforced, includes markedly progressive elements. But without transparency, the weight of their effect is unknown.

In December 2016, authorities announced that oversight of domestic workers would be transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Human Resources and Emiratization Ministry (the former Labor Ministry) which oversees all other workers.

The latest draft law comes amidst negotiations with the Philippines and Indonesia to lift deployment bans.