Photo © Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is taking steps to reform its labor laws, local authorities say. At a press conference in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, September 29, officials outlined three significant reforms, effective next year, that are meant to protect the rights of some 5 million migrant laborers, many of whom are building major cultural, institutional, and infrastructure projects there, and who have been subjected to wage theft, inadequate housing, and passport confiscation.

“The issue isn’t about the legal system itself, but some of the practices that have been associated with it,” said Labor Minister Saqr Ghobash.

The new provisions outlined by UAE officials would prevent employers from changing the terms of already agreed worker contracts, allow workers to terminate their contracts at will, and enable them to leave their employer for other job opportunities. The second and third reforms target the gulf region’s much-criticized migrant sponsorship system, called kafala, a policy that binds employees to the companies that sponsor them.

“We wanted to ensure that the labor relation is entered into voluntarily and freely,” said Ghobash.

Many of the UAE’s laborers have left their homes—chiefly in Southeast Asia and the Philippines—to lay the groundwork for Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island project, home to ambitious works by Rafael Viñoly, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, and Tadao Ando. Viñoly’s New York University project came under fire after reports in the New York Times and elsewhere showed that, in spite of persistent promises from the university, workers were not given fair wages, reasonable working hours, or adequate living quarters.

In spite of the changes’ positive tenor, the reforms are facing scrutiny from human-rights groups, especially regarding how the country plans to monitor and enforce such laws.

Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, points out that the two kafala-focused reforms echo similar changes promised in 2010 by the Ministry of Labor. McGeehan, who was banned from the country last year, says that a lack of institutional transparency makes it difficult to determine whether changes are being implemented.

“Paper reforms are all well and good to provide the framework for a better labor system,” he says, “but until these countries stop banning investigations, people will never fully trust them.”