One of the most striking features of the UAE is the demographic composition of its workforce and the striking differences between the working conditions. Nearly 70 percent of the UAE government's workforce is comprised of Emirati nationals, while expatriates overwhelmingly dominate the private sector . There is no minimum wage. All workers are prohibited from organizing unions, bargaining collectively, and going on strike. In 1995 the United States suspended the UAE from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation Insurance Program because of the government's failure to comply with internationally recognized worker rights and standards.
The UAE, however, does regulate workplace health and safety standards rigorously, and injured workers are entitled to fair compensation by law. Forced and compulsory labor is illegal and rare. Children under the age of 15 are not permitted to work, and there are special regulations for workers between the ages of 15 and 18. Most UAE workers work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, and are not required to work outside when the temperature exceeds 44 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit)—a key consideration in a climate as hot as that of the UAE. The UAE Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MLSA) generally rejects contracts that provide excessively low wages and attempts to investigate all complaints made by workers. Workers also may seek redress in courts, including special labor courts established by the MLSA. Unemployment rates are believed to be very low.
Still, these labor regulations do not cover government employees, domestic servants, agricultural workers, and women. Such groups are at times obliged to work longer than mandatory hours, and domestic servants are often victims of abuse or work conditions approaching indentured servitude. Even expatriate workers, who are covered by labor laws, frequently are not protected because the costs of seeking redress in the courts can be prohibitively high and because the MLSA is understaffed. Expatriate workers also face the threat of immediate deportation because many are in the UAE on temporary work visas. Though not officially sanctioned, discrimination is often practiced against women. As a result, unemployment for female university graduates is far higher than that of their male counterparts.
Child laborers perhaps are in the greatest danger. There have been consistent reports for at least a decade of underage boys—sometimes as young as 5-or 8-years old—working as camel jockeys. Although the government in 1993 prohibited children younger than 15 serving as camel jockeys, the State Department's 1999 Human Rights Report for the UAE speculated that the employers of underage camel jockeys are from powerful Emirati families considered to be above the law. Equally vulnerable are the large number of women from the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia who engage in prostitution and other acts associated with organized crime.