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Labour campaign

Ellie Larson, executive director of the American Center for International Labour Solidarity, visited the UAE for Construction Week's GCC Leadership Summit '08. She speaks to Conrad Egbert about how the GCC fares with workers' rights.

LARSON: Securing economic, social and political rights.
LARSON: Securing economic, social and political rights.

Ellie Larson, executive director of the American Center for International Labour Solidarity, visited the UAE for Construction Week's GCC Leadership Summit '08. She speaks to Conrad Egbert about how the GCC fares with workers' rights.

The UAE is fast becoming a preferred international destination with one of the world's most diverse multicultural workforces. With this unprecedented growth, the UAE is experiencing the growing pains expected of a Middle Eastern country dealing with a large migrant labour community.

Challenges facing the government and employers include comprehensive labour laws that ensure adequate wages, accommodation, and health and safety.

When a work force has no mechanism to channel their problems it results in (discontent).

Ellie Larson, executive director of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center for the Washington, D.C.-based American Center for International Labour Solidarity, was in Dubai last week for the GCC Leadership Summit '08 labour conference. It was a rare event in which Human Rights Watch, labour organisers and employers met to discuss at length a wide range of labour issues.

Larson's role at the Solidarity Center is to secure economic, social and political rights for workers around the world.

She had been the International Affairs director and executive assistant to the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, in the United States. She had managed a union representing 55,000 members at 26 airlines with flight attendants from 102 countries.

Larson discusses the challenges facing the country and how it can implement concrete measures to win the race to retain its workforce.

What is the perception of the UAE in the Western world when it comes to workers' rights?

In the Western world, all the Arab nations are clubbed together so it's even harder to be taken seriously and often the good that is done is not conveyed. But it also opens up a space with human rights organisations to discuss ways of doing things and to better their reputation.

I really believe that there is a leadership here which wants to do the right thing in terms of (workers') rights and wants to see the right thing done by their people.


They want to see their country grow, their people profit and to become economically stable. But they don't have the mechanism to do this because it's unfamiliar territory to them.

You drive down a highway here and you see bus after bus of workers and they become faceless. But they're not a faceless mass. They're just like the rest of us, who are trying to improve their lives, their children's lives, their families' lives and trying to be good productive citizens and this is their only chance to do it. And we shouldn't as employers ... take advantage of them in this manner.

So are trade unions against the idea of migrant workers?

Countries that have their human rights in order will benefit the most.

Don't get me wrong, trade unions are not against labour migration but they are against migrant workers being treated in an inappropriate fashion, or not getting decent work or not getting paid, or not having the dignity that workers should be allowed to have.

Of all the GCC countries which ones are the best for workers' rights?

We are seeing some really interesting things happen in Kuwait. Bahrain is very progressive and some of the leaders are organising labour movements. The government of Jordan as well, and I have to give credit to the government of the UAE. They are interested in engaging and we can only help as long as they let us in.

Is the sheer size of the migrant labour force threatening?

The migrant labour force is the biggest part of the population and when a work force has no other alternative or mechanism to channel their problems it results in (discontent), which we've seen before here and this is where the importance of trade unions comes in.

There is going to be a lack of labour globally within the next five years and this is when the importance of human rights will come to the fore.

There will be head-on competition for labour and then all those countries that have a good reputation are doing a good job and have their human rights in order will benefit the most. That's where all the good workers are going to go and productivity will go up there; you'll have better buildings, better systems and better skills.

What about the employers? Shouldn't a need for change come from them as well?

I hear some of the employers complaining about the problem now. They know that the competition is going up and so they're worried. It will happen eventually.


If it's not the workers that are heard, the employers will soon begin to demand a change in order to hold on to these workers who are going off to countries that offer them better rights.

I look at the newspapers here and I see project after project. These buildings have to be serviced, have to be maintained, to take care of electrical systems, to do the plumbing.

You still need workers even after construction and then people to live in them. Who's going to want to live here if they feel it's a difficult place to live in?

There is a limit and people will eventually call it a day and leave if they're not heard.

The UAE doesn't have the workforce that is willing to do all those things. So are you telling me the country is going to come to a grinding halt once the labour begins to leave?

I mean there is a limit and people will eventually call it a day and leave if they're not heard.

This region will always need migrant workers, and it needs to be a good place to work if they want them.

What about the free trade agreement with the US?

The US can't go ahead with it. Congress has made it very clear that the free trade agreements have to have human rights provisions in them.

And lastly, why do you think a minimum wage hasn't been introduced yet?

Employers are saying that if the government introduces a minimum wage, companies will then begin to pay only the minimum wage. Now that's the oldest excuse in the book. It's not true.

On one hand they're talking about market forces and then on the other they come up with reasons like these.

The market forces will prevail even with the minimum wage. All it will do is make sure that no one goes under paid and protect workers' rights.

There is no excuse.

RELATED LINKS: Ambitious project for Trump and Nakheel, Worker conditions fall short of fair treatment, Minimum wage not likely for UAE workers, Companies warned on mid-day work bans

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