20 March 2018, GENEVA – Initiatives implemented by the government of the United Arab Emirates to enhance access to justice for foreign workers have brought positive results and could be replicated on a broader basis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These were the conclusions drawn by labour law experts who participated in a panel debate held at the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The conference, entitled “Improving access to justice for workers: the case of UAE”, was held on 20 March by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue and the European Public Law Organization, in cooperation with the Permanent Mission of the United Arab Emirates to UN Geneva. The debate took place on the margins of the 37th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The aim of the panel debate was to review the progress achieved in the UAE to enhance access to justice and to identify areas of possible improvement. It likewise served as a starting-point for a process that would advocate a broadening of issues related to human rights and labour rights for foreign workers in the Gulf region. The review was intended to assess the most innovative features of such reforms and their possible replication in GCC countries.

UAE Vision 2021: The blueprint for the implementation of innovative initiatives to enhance access to justice

The panel debate emphasised the importance of pursuing progress witnessed in the UAE with regard to justice for workers. Reforms in the UAE are part of a broad-based effort in GCC countries to improve workers’ rights in these advanced liberal economies. UAE government policy to enhance access to justice is embedded in the UAE 2021 Vision which stipulates, inter alia, the importance of promoting safe, public and fair judiciary.

The implementation of the UAE Vision 2021 is bringing concrete results, according to the Geneva Centre’s Chairman H. E. Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, in the field of enhancing judicial system access and efficiency. Key initiatives to promote the right and welfare of workers have been implemented by the UAE government in this regard. The introduction of e-trials, video conferencing, conciliation, real-time translations, mediation and court hearings are likewise telling examples of UAE’s aspirations to enhance access to justice.

The achievements of the UAE government were also highlighted by other keynote speakers. In his opening remarks, the Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of the UAE to UN Geneva – H. E. Ambassador Obaid Salem Saeed Al Zaabi – observed that the UAE is “governed by a legal system that protects their beliefs, respects their customs and traditions and their way of life.” “Multiple measures, decrees, and resolutions” will be considered by the UAE government so as to “implement these laws and increase workers protections.” Other initiatives related to inter alia the protection against work-related injuries, health, insurance and other related issues are also being implemented by the UAE government.

One concrete example of the UAE’s endeavours to enhance access to justice is the introduction of the Wages Protection System (WPS). This is an “important step to ensure the protection of the rights of workers,” H. E. Ambassador Al Zaabi said. Dr. Jill Wells, Senior Policy Advisor at Engineers against Poverty, highlighted that the introduction of the WPS has contributed to resolving issues related to late payments of wages. In this regard, companies employing migrant workers need to set aside bank guarantees – it was highlighted - to pay workers’ wages when employers default so as to protect the wages of migrant construction workers. 

A case study analysis of the endeavours of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD) to promote access to justice was likewise offered by Mr. Benjimin George Burgher, Judge and Legal Consultant with ADJD. In this regard, a mobile court is being used by ADJD – he noted - to carry out “court procedures in an accessible and effective manner.” More than 70,000 workers have so far benefited from this innovative method to enhance the provision of legal aid and access to justice.

In view of the fact that migrants and foreign workers may add up to 90% of the populations in GCC countries, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director Ambassador Idriss Jazairy – who also served as a moderator for the debate – underlined that labour reforms must benefit host and source societies alike. A “consensus around the adoption of policies and measures aimed at enhancing the legal empowerment of foreign labour” is therefore a key priority. Labour reforms must also recognise the interplay between human rights and labour rights. Access to justice is not only about guaranteeing access to courts and legal representation – he said – but also about “seeking and obtaining a remedy for grievances.”

Challenges impeding the enjoyment of access to justice must be given due consideration

During the debate, suggestions were made to improve access to justice of foreign workers in the UAE, said Ambassador George Papadatos, the Head of the European Public Law Organization’s Geneva Delegation.

In this connection, Mr. Ryszard Cholewinski - Senior Migration Specialist at the ILO Regional Office for Arab States in Beirut – underlined that ILO remains committed to support the UAE government to address issues of relevance to access to justice.  “The UAE faces several challenges in the governance of its labour market” – he noted – as “low employment rate of nationals, a segmented labour market and deficits in the availability of reliable and comprehensive labour market data” remain the key challenges, according to the speaker. The protection of migrant workers should also be addressed as part of consultation phases of the Global Compact on Migration and for Refugees.

Abuse and harsh working conditions involving working conditions for domestic workers likewise remain issues of concern in the UAE, according to Ms. Rothna Begum the Women’s Rights Researcher on the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. Labour law related to domestic workers is weaker than the UAE labour law for all other workers. The UAE should therefore seek to – it was recommended - ensure its law is aligned with the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention “which maintains that domestic workers should have protections equivalent to those of other workers.” The decision to establish a prosecution unit in Abu Dhabi focused on crimes against domestic workers – Ms. Begum remarked  - was an important step that “could help increase investigations into abuses of domestic workers.“

With regard to the adoption of labour legislation to address employment-related issues, Mr. Jamie Liddington - Partner and Head of Employment Hadef & Partners LLC – underlined that the elimination of administrative barriers related to justice requires increased attention. Practical difficulties posed by having to independently travel to Court, pay a fee in some cases, language barriers and then return on numerous occasions for hearing dates,” illustrate that “in a practical sense, there are significant barriers to justice for blue collar workers.”

Nonetheless, the introduction of domestic worker legislation, the Tadbeer and Tawjeeh initiatives and removal of court fees have contributed to addressing some of these obstacles, said Mr. Liddington. The Permanent Representative of India to UN Geneva – H. E. Ambassador Rajiv Kumar Chander – added, in this regard, that enhanced access to information regarding the rights and responsibilities of foreign workers would contribute to addressing these issues. He indicated that on a recent visit to the UAE, the Prime Minister of India had paid tribute to the Emirati policy towards Indian workers in the country.

The panellists` presentations were followed by a rich, frank and constructive debate with the audience which was attended by Ambassadors and other representatives from the Permanent Missions of Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, the Maldives and Canada. This event will pave the way for a series of panel discussions which will be organized by the Geneva Centre to encourage the process of reform which has been initiated in the Gulf region with respect to foreign labour. With the cooperation of other interested countries, the best practice case-study review will contribute to placing the GCC countries in the vanguard of labour-related migration and a source of inspiration of other countries witnessing large-scale migration.

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