Is it really a break?

At the start of the midday working ban across the UAE, Conrad Egbert examines whether the break is benefiting the labour force.

The logistics of transporting workers back to their camps during the short break means that they often ?rest? on site. (Valeriano Handumon/ITP Images)
The logistics of transporting workers back to their camps during the short break means that they often ?rest? on site. (Valeriano Handumon/ITP Images)

The midday working ban came into effect last week and falls between 12.30pm and 3pm until 31 August.

Once again, the Ministry of Labour has pledged heavy penalties against violators.

Workers have also been given the right to seek compensation and sue their employers if they suffer from heatstroke or any heat-related disease due to toiling in the sun during the rest hours.

The ministry has also threatened to ‘name and shame' companies on a weekly basis through the media if they don't adhere to the rule, and will imposes fines of up to US $8,170 (AED30,000) per worker for a third-time violation.

On the face of it, the situation seems ideal. But the question is: is it really?

While appreciating the UAE's drive to improve labour conditions, some important questions need to be considered.

These include: what is the point of the midday break? What will workers do for two-and-a-half hours, every day for two months? Are they being provided with appropriate resting areas, as driving them back to their labour camps has proved to be a logistical nightmare in the past? And, more importantly, how will this affect the construction industry, the workers and the contractors?

Tackling the first question is health and safety manager for Civilco in Abu Dhabi, Aju Sharfuddin.

"The idea is to let the workers rest and recuperate from the hot and humid days that one experiences here. But if they're roaming around, sitting under trees and looking for shaded footpaths, it's not serving the purpose of the break, is it?"

Sharfuddin added that proper rest areas should be provided along with the ban, since in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi the labour camps are on the outskirts of the cities, making it difficult to transport workers twice a day.

"Most companies are observing the midday ban, but that's not enough. Just relieving workers for two-and-a-half hours without providing appropriate resting facilities misses the whole point of it all. It's not feasible to drive them back to their camps everyday as a one-way drive takes about an hour. So instead we are providing large, air-conditioned resting areas for our workers. If we could afford to provide beds as well, we would."

The assistant undersecretary of the UAE Ministry of Labour, Humaid bin Demas, said at a press conference in Abu Dhabi last week, that the midday break was meant to protect workers.

But how much protection from the heat are they really getting if they don't have appropriate areas to take shelter in?

"It's a very good idea to have a midday break. But at the moment it's a half-baked thing," said Riaz Malik, managing director of German piling contractor, Bauer.

"It's good from the point of view that something has to be done during the hot months - but the other thing that has to be associated with this is: where should the workers go between those hours?

"On our sites, we have air-conditioned containers for workers to stay during this time - but there are sites, where even if you wanted to, you cannot put anymore containers because they're not meant to accommodate rest areas as they are very congested sites."

Malik gave an example of a site at Dubai airport, where the contractor has provided shaded areas with fans that also spray water.

"But the people are basically sitting on benches - now, just imagine sitting on a bench for three hours - it's not easy or convenient. They can't relax or lie down - that's what people aren't getting.

"The purpose isn't just to show on paper ‘we have a break'; the purpose is to give the people protection from the heat, plus rest. This is a health issue, more or less. Just keeping them under a tree or in an air-conditioned place where they're unable to rest is not good enough."

Malik also said that since time is money, workers and contractors are losing out. Labourers can't work during these hours, and so are losing out on three hours worth of pay every day for two months, while contractors face project delays.

But Ahmed Bukhatir, managing director of Dubai-based McFadden International Construction Group, offers a different perspective: "I think workers could earn more as they could rest for those hours, where they'd get paid a normal wage, and work overtime in the evening instead.

"In the past, I've seen companies stepping over each other to look for new workers during these months due to their own ones falling sick in the heat, and that ends up costing more in the long run."

Bukhatir added: "As far as appropriate resting areas are concerned, wherever a company can afford to do so, it should provide an air-conditioned environment for workers. Humidity is one of the main causes of heat stress. Transporting the workers back to their camps is out of the question as it's just not rational, logistically or financially."

Agreeing with the need for appropriate shelter, BS Mubarak, labour consul from the Indian Consulate, said: "Companies should be told to provide shelter for workers, as essentially the whole point in this exercise of banning work in the afternoon is to allow them to rest. It's fantastic how far the UAE government has come on this issue and a step further to enforcing proper rest areas will make the whole point of this more desirable."

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