Human Rights Watch on Saturday urged the United Arab Emirates not to deport migrant building workers for staging a rare strike to demand better pay and conditions.
“It would be scandalous if the UAE deported workers who have taken a courageous stand for their basic rights,” HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement.
The New York-based group cited media reports claiming authorities in the UAE had slapped deportation orders on 43 migrants who joined a strike by workers at the Arabtec construction giant.
Arabtec said on Wednesday that thousands of mainly Asian workers had ended a strike that began at the weekend.
“This strike is a stark reminder of the UAE’s failure to reform its exploitative labour system,” Whitson charged.
Strikes are banned in the UAE, where unions do not exist and the government does not stipulate a minimum wage.
Unskilled workers earn a monthly salary of no more than 900 dirhams (about $245, 190 euros).
The workers were demanding their 350 dirhams ($95) food allowance paid with their wages rather than the three daily meals provided by the company, English-language daily The National reported.
Arabtec said the strike was a result of “a minority group who will be held accountable for their actions”.
It said the issue had been “resolved amicably” with cooperation from the labour ministry, police and other official bodies.
But Whitson sharply criticised the government for its response to the industrial action.
“The UAE authorities should be investigating whether local employers have violated the law, not penalising poorly paid and unprotected workers,” she said.
HRW said that UAE authorities reportedly deported 70 migrant workers after a similar strike by Arabtec labourers in January 2011.
Arabtec is part of a consortium that built Dubai’s landmark Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. It also has won a $654-million contract to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi art gallery, set to open in 2015.
Rights groups have repeatedly criticised the UAE and other Gulf countries for their treatment of millions of foreign workers, mostly Asians.
The watchdogs have particularly criticised the sponsorship system, still in force in most Gulf states, under which workers must be sponsored by their employers, likening the to modern-day slavery.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]