Worker conditions fall short

The UAE must provide basic wages, safety and housing for its construction workers.

ANALYSIS, Projects

Editor Rob Wagner looks at last week's GCC Leadership Summit on labour issues and workers' rights and just how far the UAE must go in providing basic wages, safety and housing for construction workers.

Last week's GCC Leadership Summit '08 conference focusing on labour issues and workers' rights hit the right notes and fulfilled its promise to break new ground in addressing perhaps the most complex and controversial labour issues in the UAE.

In a rapidly-growing country where labour unions don't exist, collective bargaining is a distant dream for workers, and institutionalised health and safety rules remain underdeveloped at best, the fact that the Human Rights Watch (HRW), labour organisers and employers met under one roof is a milestone in itself in UAE labour history.

The most glaring flaw in the conference at Madinat Jumeirah was the lack of a significant presence from the various governments in the GCC.

Yet the most glaring flaw in the conference at the Madinat Jumeirah was the lack of a significant presence from the various governments in the GCC.

Other than Yaqoob Al Zarooni, deputy CEO of Dubai Properties, the conference did not feature a single Emirati. The Ministry of Labour was represented by Alex Zalami, who presented a 15-minute video addressing the government's efforts to help labourers.

Some participants privately observed that the video didn't match the reality of the lives of labourers. But more importantly, as one labour organiser put it, dialogue on worker issues is almost pointless unless the UAE government is fully engaged in the process.

Zalami, however, did provide a glimpse of UAE's plans to address workers' rights. The government is in the middle of redrafting its existing labour laws to close gaps that address worker protection.

"The laws are under review because gaps have surfaced and we want to close these gaps," Zalami said, noting that the existing laws "provide enough power to deal with challenges" until a final draft is approved.

Zalami said the government is considering developing a ranking system for employers meeting specific minimum standards in worker health and safety, accommodations and wage protection.

Employers exceeding these standards will enjoy reduced fees and faster processing of projects among other incentives. Employers not meeting the minimum standards will see more frequent and rigorous onsite inspections, higher fees and other sanctions.

But the issue that kept surfacing throughout the day among labour organisers and employers was whether a minimum wage for workers would be implemented.

The short answer is no.

"We don't anticipate a minimum wage law in the near future," Zalami said. But he noted that employment contracts must spell out the wage and it must be the same contract in the worker's country of origin and in the UAE.

The fact that no minimum wage law is being considered doesn't come as a surprise to conference participants. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait don't have a minimum wage for foreign workers. It's unlikely that the UAE will seriously consider it.

And Walid Hamdan, workers specialist for the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) regional office for Arab States, acknowledged that the ILO doesn't see a minimum wage as obligatory.

Rather, Hamdan said the ILO's priorities were not to seek a minimum wage, but to ensure regulations are enforced in the recruitment of workers to curb abuses and exploitation, and to provide social protection such as fixed work hours, overtime, sick leave and health and safety. He also wants to see a mechanism in place to enforce labour laws as well as workers' rights to free association and collective bargaining.

Criticism of the UAE's handling of workers' rights, however, was muted, if not entirely absent, at the conference.

Last year, the HRW issued a stinging 15-page report detailing how the UAE's draft labour law violates international standards and that migrant workers continue to be at risk for abuse.

The report, which followed HRW's critical November 2006 document, "Building Towers, Cheating Workers," was particularly harsh on the UAE's draft labour laws that failed to make provisions for workers' rights to organise and to collectively bargain.

Instead, Joe Stork, deputy director of the MENA Division for the HRW, only lamented at the conference that the human rights watchdog had "intermittent discussions" with the UAE government after it issued the November report.

And none of HRW's 11 recommendations had been followed, he said.

The ILO has taken a softer approach with more telling results.

Hamdan also said the ILO had been "involved in serious discussions with the Ministry of Labour" to obtain representation for workers.

He also acknowledged that the UAE "has taken steps to better protect workers," but he wondered how far the government would go to ensure worker protection.

Despite ignoring the HRW and developing a closer relationship with the ILO, at least at the negotiating table, the UAE government may very well give the rights group most of what it wants, which is employee representation, worker safety and decent wages.

RELATED LINKS: Labour campaign, Minimum wage not likely for UAE workers, Companies warned on mid-day work bans

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