Absent min wage: a worker’s tool?

Worker demonstrations may not have changed much in Dubai, but some of the demands being made by the workers may have. Conrad Egbert takes a look at why these demands have come about and if there are some external forces at play.

In 2006
In 2006

Worker demonstrations may not have changed much in Dubai, but some of the demands being made by the workers may have. Conrad Egbert takes a look at why these demands have come about and if there are some external forces at play.

Last month, the most recent strike to hit the UAE construction sector revealed an interesting shift in the demands of some construction workers in the country.

Basic demands of payment on time and better living conditions have been replaced with new ones, including perks that most white-collared workers could only dream of.

In a letter sent to the company management of contracting firm SS Lootah last month, workers from the company, demanding a 30% rise in their salaries wrote: "We request you to grant us leave on all public holidays, especially Friday, and 45 days leave each year with a one-way air ticket, or 90 days leave with a return air ticket every two years."

The workers said that they would remain on strike until their demands were met, but intervention by older construction workers within the company brought the strike to an end, resulting in all the workers going back to work.

Rashid Lootah, executive director of SS Lootah Contracting, believes that there is a ‘third party' instigating strikes among workers in the country.

"The fact that our workforce has never gone on strike to demand better living conditions or timely payment of wages is proof in itself that the labourers have been instigated by a third party with questionable motives and intentions towards the stability and growth of our country."

He added that there was no reason for the workers to go on strike as the company treats them very well and has even introduced a minimum wage policy under which a new labourer earns a minimum of US $272 (AED1000) a month, along with other financial benefits that come in the form of non-refundable cash grants, overtime payments and bonuses. The company also supported its Bangladeshi workers when Bangladesh was hit by a cyclone last November.

But a construction worker employed by local contractor Arabtec for more than three years told Construction Week that such claims were untrue.

"I don't think an external body is instigating these strikes," he said.

"If there was, wouldn't at least one person out of such a massive workforce come out with the truth? Workers are going to be upset if the company doesn't tend to their needs in this constantly changing environment. A few years ago, when payment and living conditions were intolerable and companies weren't making a change, the workers retaliated. Today, living in Dubai has become unaffordable and with the Rupee strengthening against the Dirham, salaries need to be reassessed. But most companies aren't doing the needful again, so obviously the workers will retaliate."

Once again, the situation raises the question of whether we need a minimum wage and, more importantly, if the absence of one is now beginning to work against companies' interests.

Besix is one contractor that has been hit by two high-profile strikes, with the most recent one being last November. Phillipe Dessoy, the company's general manager, said that even though the strike was definitely organised by external elements, it was certainly not a usual occurence.

"It was too organised to have been run by the workers," he said.

"There was definitely an external force coordinating it, but this is not always the case. And yes, a minimum wage is essential for everyone. It would protect workers from being underpaid and it would protect companies from being taken advantage of. It will make things clear for the governments of different countries so they know not to allow a worker to leave their country if their contract isn't meeting the minimum wage requirement, and so controlling the problem on home soil."

Dessoy added that even though striking is not the best way of solving problems, companies need to pay attention to rising costs in Dubai and how much of a difference a change in currency makes to construction workers.

With most labour sending countries planning to introduce a minimum wage, including India and Sri Lanka, and with Bangladesh already having introduced one, Dessoy feels the UAE should introduce one too.

More than a malignant force behind worker unrest in the country, maybe it's the absence of a minimum wage that is the root of the problem. But then, as always, time reveals all.

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