EXCLUSIVE: Conrad Egbert talks to UAE Minister of Labour Ali Abdulla Al Kaabi about his plans for the future.
After being ushered into one of the conference rooms at Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi during the contractual labour forum last month, I was faced with my photographer and an empty chair.
I was there to meet the elusive UAE minister of labour, HE Dr Ali Abdulla Al Kaabi.
The offer of an exclusive interview with Construction Week had fortunately piqued his interest.
Known for his progressive and reformist attitude, the minister was educated at George Washington University in Washington DC.
He obtained a Doctor of Science Degree in Engineering Management and went on to work at the UAE Military Office as a computer network administrator, and later at the UAE Scholarship Office in Washington DC.
He took over the Ministry of Labour (MoL) in 2004 and immediately sent the authority into a frenzy when he ordered all ministry officials who had commercial licences to renounce them or resign, claiming that the practice of government servants having commercial licenses was an anomaly.
Compounding the turmoil was the influx of foreign labour that was being imported to fuel Dubai's massive construction boom, which could well go down in the UAE's history as being the most turbulent period, with some of the worst strikes and demonstrations that the country has ever experienced.
When Kaabi arrived, his demeanour was confident yet comfortingly in touch with reality.
He looked younger than one would imagine, which perhaps explains his need for change and his drive to steer the ministry into a new era.
With the rather dramatic labour situation in the UAE over the past few years, I was curious to know what the term ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“human rights' actually meant to the minister. He began his answer with the very traditional ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim' (ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“In the name of God the most merciful').
"I'll tell you exactly the challenges I was faced with. Firstly, we had to improve the ministry of labour internally; secondly we had to improve the laws and regulations within the UAE, and thirdly we had to take a look at what kind of issues the labour-sending countries and us faced so we could solve
Change begins within oneself and so Kaabi had to change the mindset of his own ministerial employees by getting them to think of the ministry as a private body and not as a governmental one.
"I wanted them to learn how to treat people as clients with good customer etiquette, so we had to bring in a change of attitude. We changed the environment and we changed how the system worked.
"Then we re-examined some of the rules and regulations and reopened the ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“transfer membership'. We said that if a person has a master's degree or higher, then they will be able to change sponsorship after a year.
If they have a bachelor's degree, then they can change sponsorship after two years. For an unskilled worker, a three-year period is required - this is because for an unskilled worker, the training curve is longer, so by the time they become skilled or semi-skilled a year or more would have passed, and that's when a sponsor would want to get a return on his investment.
The non-payment of workers' salaries has been a contentious issue in the UAE construction sector since the boom began, and Kaabi agrees that it is still an issue and is taken very seriously.
"There are three pillars that we insist on: Salaries have to be paid on time, accommodation should be according to the law and health insurance should be mandatory.
"Electronic salary payment is now compulsory. All salaries have to be paid through a bank or an exchange which have to link up with the MoL, which then allows us to monitor exactly when an employee gets paid and how much.
"Previously, it took us three months to get to know of defaults on payment; now it's immediate.
"Also, if a worker complains to labour relations that he hasn't been paid, and then we find that he hasn't been paid for two months, he has the right to transfer his sponsorship to another company without paying any fees.
The minister added that a pilot study was conducted in 2005 to identify what workers' housing should be like and that one massive labour camp had been set up in Abu Dhabi and another was to follow in Dubai followed by the other emirates.
A compulsory health insurance scheme, similar to the one implemented in Abu Dhabi in early 2007, would also be rolled out in Dubai and the northern Emirates this year.
But even though the health insurance is mandatory, some companies claim that it covers close to nothing and does not cover vital points such as onsite injuries.
Kaabi denies this: "If it doesn't then the company has to pay for it. It is in the law. It [on-site injuries] has to be covered. If not, the company is breaking the law and action will be taken.
There is an amount that a company has to pay in the event of an accident involving a worker. And, God forbid, if the worker dies, then the company has to arrange the coffin and pay US $8,169 (AED 30,000) to send it back home.
"In terms of health and safety, we also require construction companies to have an ambulance, a doctor and a nurse on site all the time.
So if the UAE does believe in workers' rights, then why is it not making that final home-run and signing up with the ILO conventions to incorporate the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association?
"To be honest with you, the UAE is an odd country," said Kaabi.
"Population-wise, 80% is expatriate and 20% is local, so we have to evaluate all solutions and then decide what kind of associations we should have, and whether it will be by sector or by division.
Kaabi added: "It's a sovereignty issue so we have to think about it. We are conducting a study at the moment to see what the best way forward would be.
Every labour market has its difficulties and, like the UAE and other labour receiving countries, the sending countries have their share of problems as well.
"The problem actually begins in the sending countries and, in particular, with the recruitment agencies based there," the minister points out.
"So we decided to tackle the problem at the root. These agencies take exaggerated amounts of money from these poor labourers with high interest rates; sometimes they take their children as a collateral for the loan and even their land.
"So we've decided to work on a list of proper sending agencies, and open offices in these countries where labourers will undergo an induction program educating them about the law.
These labourers come from impoverished areas where they don't have access to basic services so we have to tell them what to expect in the new country through the induction program. Also, we will get fingerprints and iris scans done in case they lose their passports and documents.
Kaabi adds that all labourers coming to the UAE would undergo ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“credential' checks.
"This will eliminate some of the bad practice. They will also be informed of their rights. We are trying to make this a win-win situation for all - the sending countries, the receiving ones and the labourers.
A declaration was made in Abu Dhabi committing all countries to work together to eliminate bad practice.
But if a win-win situation is what the MoL is looking for, then how does one translate restricting workers to a three-plus-three residency cap?
"The three-plus-three cap is meant only for unskilled workers," Kaabi says. "We want to make sure that we recycle labour, in and out. For example, we want to give as many people as possible a chance to come and work in the country and not restrict it to the same workforce, year-in, year-out. People leave here with experience, which would benefit their home countries as well.
"At the same time, especially with construction labourers - they come here leaving their families behind and being away for six years is hard enough so we'd like them to go back and rejoin their families. After a six-year period, they begin to feel disappointed, they feel homesick, they want to go back - so we say let them, and then we get people who are fresh and mentally prepared for life here.
"In any case, we're still in the process of fine-tuning the length of the cap and we also want to get a GCC-wide approval to enable workers' to travel within the region.
My time with the minister comes to an end with my final question; I ask him what the MoL is doing to respond to human rights bodies such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which is still calling for better human rights in the region.
"We are open to positive criticism," he says. "We would even welcome some of their ideas. We are not perfect. There are some issues and we're dealing with them.
"My only concern with them [Human Rights Watch] is that research is usually based on a sample of, say, 60 illegal workers, which is then generalised to show a bad situation in Dubai.
"But sixty out of 1.2 million construction workers is hardly a good example. And they only talk to the people who are in grievance; why? If you put yourself in the situation of being an illegal worker then you're obviously going to complain.
Kaabi added: "If the human rights bodies want to contact us, I say come. We'll work together because we want to benefit as well. And if there is an issue we will deal with it in a positive manner, collectively.
"We've made so much progress - they have to look at the positive side as well. Yes, there are minor and major issues that we're working on, but we are getting there.