Bond of trust

Contractors may fare better if they took recruitment into their own hands

Michael Fahy
Michael Fahy

Tristan Forster of Dubai-based ethical recruitment company FSI Worldwide makes the point that many expat workers who come over to Gulf countries in a bid to provide a better life for families back home often find themselves working for up to two years just to pay off expenses and loan fees they incur from recruiters in their home countries.

Manpower companies charging workers huge fees and eye-watering interest on loans is something the UAE (and other Gulf countries) have moved to outlaw, but, as the independent monitoring report produced by PwC for TDIC on Saadiyat Island worker conditions shows, the practice is still prevalent, with 88% of workers stating that they had paid fees to a recruiter, and 89% saying they had paid recruitment costs.

The fees can range from between $1,000-$3,000 which, when you’re being paid as little as $1 an hour, can take a long time to pay back. One regular contributor to Construction Week, M. Vasanth Kumar, who is CEO of Qatar-based contractor Arabian MEP, has previously made the point that the contracting industry in the region seems to have an addiction to cheap sources of labour, arguing that for many firms, the (usually unsuccessful) strategy for dealing with tight construction timeframes is to throw as many workers as possible at the problem.

Kumar has also said that productivity among Gulf construction workers remains incredibly low, which, when you consider that many will spend at least their first 12 months repaying the money that a manpower firm has charged them just to arrive at a site, is perhaps understandable.

Forster points out that this “pernicious” employment industry is powerful and well-established in source countries. However, it is not insurmountable. Forster believes the UAE could take on a global leadership role by ensuring that rules on recruiter fees are more rigorously enforced, but maybe efforts to end this practice should start with the industry itself.

These manpower companies, after all, are merely agencies that rely on contractors for opportunities.

Many of the bigger contractors in the market have first-class policies for the treatment of workers once they arrive in the GCC – be it rigorous health and safety training, or frequent, random monitoring of accommodation to make sure it is up to scratch. But maybe it is time for them to take steps towards directly hiring staff from source markets.

Of course, handling the whole process of would add a huge cost and administrative burden, but if an enlightened client such as a TDIC or a Qatar Foundation were willing to factor these costs into the procurement brief of a major project, it could prove to be the beginning of the end of bonded labour. It could also lead to a much more efficient industry.

After all, an employee who is able to send the bulk of his pay home from day one is obviously much more likely to be pleased with his lot. And as the old saying goes, a happy worker is a productive worker.





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