ABU DHABI - The United Arab Emirates on Tuesday announced labour reforms to be enforced from January 1 aimed at curbing abuse and protecting the rights of millions of foreign workers.

The UAE and other Arab states in the oil-rich Gulf, notably Qatar, where a construction frenzy to host the 2022 football World Cup has put it in the media spotlight, are often criticised by rights groups over abuse of expatriate labourers, mostly from Asia. Emirati Labour Minister Saqr Ghubash held a press conference in Abu Dhabi to announce the reforms contained in three ministerial decrees.

“We want to close the door on those who trick the simple worker,” said Ghubash, whose ministry has 500 inspectors.

The new measures - similar to reforms announced in Qatar - will allow foreign workers to terminate their contract and change employer. Employers must issue job offers in the employee’s language, legally registered and laying down terms that cannot be changed after the worker’s arrival in the UAE.

The whole contractual process must be “totally transparent” and based on “the informed consent of the workers and the employer”.

Ghubash said the reforms aim to curb abuse of the so-called “kafala” system, or sponsorship, which can leave foreign workers in the Gulf at the mercy of employers barring them from returning home or changing jobs.

Job offers must contain a clause forbidding the employer from holding onto the identity papers of his employee, he said.

Ghubash said the new rules would permit workers to change employer once they receive authorisation from the labour ministry.

The reforms apply to the 4.5 million foreign workers registered with the labour ministry, but not the millions of domestic workers from abroad whose cases are handled by the interior ministry.

Emiratis account for barely 10 percent of the 10-million population of the UAE and are far outnumbered by the country’s foreign workforce, mostly from Asia.