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United Arab Emirates Table of Contents

United Arab Emirates


There was no significant foreign labor force before the sharp rise in oil revenues in the 1970s. Most work was done by local Arabs, some by slaves brought from Africa; Indians and Iranians were mainly merchants. The slave trade, most of which ended by about 1945, was a major point of contention in relations between Britain and the rulers of the Trucial Coast. For example, if the British resident was opposed by a shaykh on a specific matter, the resident in some cases might accuse the shaykh of violating treaty bans on the slave trade and threaten to destroy his pearling fleet or invalidate the travel documents of the shaykh and his subjects.

The massive influx of foreign workers and professionals in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly from other Arab countries and from India, Pakistan, and Iran, fundamentally changed the face of UAE society. (The UAE's population increased 86 percent between 1975 and 1980.) Working conditions of foreign workers in the UAE vary. Professionals, managers, and clerical workers are attracted by contracts offering good salaries, comprehensive benefits, and high living standards. Unskilled and semiskilled workers are in a more precarious situation. In their home countries, they might be cheated or misled by unscrupulous labor contractors who supply workers to the gulf countries. Although many obtain safe work at reasonable wages (much of which they remit to their families abroad), others work long hours in conditions not regulated for safety and health as stringently as they should be. In the 1980s, however, the government attempted to improve the labor law, which covered conditions of employment, compensation, inspection of the workplace, and enforcement procedures. Job security can be capricious, often depending on the whims of the oil market and the national mood. In the early 1980s, for example, during a period of economic decline, authorities increased their efforts to discover foreign workers without proper credentials and deported them as illegal aliens. By 1986, however, Dubayy tried to reverse the outward flow of labor by encouraging immigrant workers to bring their families with them.

In addition, labor is not permitted to organize, strike, or engage in collective bargaining. Individuals or groups of workers may bring grievances to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which has been known to settle matters with fairness. Although the law prohibits the employment of youths under eighteen and restricts hours of work to eight hours per day six days per week, the law is widely violated. There is no minimum wage.

In 1986, according to one set of government figures, the size of the labor force was 890,941. About 25 percent worked in construction, 14 percent in trade, 7 percent in transportation and communications, and 6 percent in manufacturing. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, in 1992 UAE citizens accounted for 7 percent of the total work force and about 1 percent of the private-sector work force.

Data as of January 1993