More could be done to improve workers’ conditions, gov’t says

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities on Tuesday conceded that more could be done to improve the conditions of expatriate construction workers in the country.

“No one is setting out to claim that their living conditions are perfect, because they aren’t,” Humeid Demas, labour ministry assistant undersecretary, said.

New steps are being taken to ensure that workers’ living and working conditions are improved, the government said. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE, recently decreed the setting up of special courts to resolve labour disputes.

In addition, the number of inspectors charged with evaluating workers’ living conditions would soon be raised from 80 to 2,000; a ‘mandatory’ mechanism for prompt payment of salaries would be established; and health insurance would become compulsory.

“Action on introducing health insurance for all foreign workers has already been taken, and it is just a question of time until we get through the bureaucratic procedures needed,” Demas said.

In October 2005, a hotline was launched putting construction workers with grievances directly in touch with a specialised department in the police. The labour ministry opens a file on each case reported.

Regardless of whether the authorities have found proof of abuse, Demas said workers have the right to take their case to court. “In this country, we separate the judiciary from the executive, so the workers’ rights are fully protected,” he said.

While the UAE government has been gradually making reforms over the past several years to create better conditions for construction workers, some of the recent measures it has taken are seen to be in direct response to a report by US-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Entitled ‘Building Towers, Cheating Workers’ and released on 12 November, the report added to a pre-existing chorus of criticism of the UAE’s alleged failure to protect migrant construction workers from company abuse.

Demas said that some of HRW’s criticism had been misplaced. “On the issue of whether we term the construction workers ‘migrant workers’ or ‘temporary workers’, for instance, we don’t see that that makes any difference. At the end of the day, they have rights and guarantees too,” said Demas.

The UAE government says construction workers cannot be classed as migrant workers because they are here on a provisional basis under fixed-term contracts. However, HRW says that by classifying them as temporary workers, the construction workers are denied their full rights.

Widespread failure

Among the abuses raised in HRW’s report and local media articles were the widespread failure of companies to pay their workers on time; the confiscation of workers’ passports by the vast majority of employers for the duration of the workers’ stay in the country; forced overtime; a lack of legal assurances for medical insurance outside Abu Dhabi Emirate; and few government measures to enforce existing laws to protect the workers.

Demas added that in cases where workers are not paid on time, a ministerial decree passed in March 2005 guaranteed that the government will either ensure they are or it will find the workers new jobs.

Although typically oblivious of their rights, not all expatriate workers decry their conditions in the UAE. Some of them disputed criticism of the conditions in which the country’s estimated half a million migrant construction workers live.

“I am happy here, I can make money and send it home,” said Amanish Baz from Pakistan. As a construction worker in Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, he earns just over US $200 a month. “We have better living and working conditions than we would back home. It is good for me to have come here – I don’t regret it at all.”

Gangaram, who preferred not to disclose his full name, is from India and also a construction worker. He gets paid US $110 a month but, unlike many of his peers in other companies, has his food catered for. “I always get paid on time. I don’t have health insurance, but whenever I get sick, the company pays for my medical expenses,” Gangaram said.

“It’s hard work being here, especially with the overtime we do most days. But I prefer to make more money so I can save more, and in any case I always get Fridays off,” he said.

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