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Workers happy over government’s moves
By Riyas Babu (FRUITS OF LABOUR) / 7 January 2007
DUBAI — In parallel to the much-lauded construction boom in the emirate, a silent problem has been emerging behind the scenes. It is nothing else but the escalating unrest among the estimated half a million Asian labour force welcomed here during the oil boom years that started in early 70’s.
Six months ago, Dubai streets witnessed dozens of labour strikes demanding better living conditions and salaries. The local and international media cried foul play with bold headlines.
However, the entire scenario has changed and in recent months, not a single labour strike was reported in the emirate. Khaleej Times conducted a survey in early December to find out what brought about this dramatic change.
The changing scenario
Since the past six months, the UAE government started to act more dynamically to resolve the issues of labourers by introducing a few new measures to ensure the protection of workers.
Campaigns were organised to create awareness among the workers of their rights. The labour ministry laid down a new mechanism for quick settlement of labour disputes wherein the ministry has the power to summon the employer and provide the courts with all relevant documents. The ministry issues warning to the companies that they would face strict penalties if they delay the wages of workers.
The private sector has also been drafted to improve accommodation standards.
The Labour Minister, Dr Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi, held a meeting with the diplomatic missions from the subcontinent who are the major sources of the expatriate workforce. After the meeting, Dr Al Kaabi announced that the UAE would sign an MoU with all the countries in the subcontinent to protect the workers’ rights. The UAE has already signed an MoU with India and Pakistan.
The important milestone in the change took place in early November when His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, directed the Labour Minister to improve the working conditions across the country and warned the employers that the government would not accept any unjust treatment of employees or any compromise of their dignity and basic human rights.
A significant move came after the Dubai Municipality issued a notice to close down 100 labour camps in case they failed to meet the standards set by the civic body within a year. The Dubai Municipality has intensified the inspections at the worksites as well as accommodations. All employers have been advised to opt for health insurance for their low-paid employees and draw up special mandatory mechanisms to allow workers to collect unpaid salaries without undue delay.
Meanwhile, a report was published by a New York based human rights watchdog accusing government of failing to enforce its own laws aimed at protecting the rights of migrant workers.
The Labour Minister refuted the claims of the Human Rights Watch that companies, which were in breach of existing legislations, were not penalised.
“Dozens of companies were penalised in July and August this year alone, for failing to abide by government rules that outdoor construction work should be halted during the hottest hours of the day between 12.20 pm and 3 pm. A well-connected company, which had not paid its workers, was ordered to suspend its operations for six months,” said Al Kaabi.
“There are rules and regulations, but you cannot catch every one in this country who exploits labourers. But when we find abuse, we do not hesitate to take action,” he added.
Many labourers in the emirate have expressed satisfaction over the initiatives taken by the government to resolve labour-related issues. Many opined that they felt more comfortable and safe as the government had now started to act more dynamically.
“I think there is a big change in the situation. We were earlier hesitant to meet labour ministry officials. Now, we are more confident,” said Dileep Kumar, a worker in Al Qouz.
He said the decision of Dubai Municipality to issue notice to companies to close down or renovate about 100 labour camps in Sonapur was a clear indicator of the changing scenario.
Raj Kumar, a worker in Sonapur said, “We were not aware that we could contact officials when we face any problem with our employers. So, the option we found was to go for strikes. The initiative to introduce new mechanism to fast-track the resolution of labour issues is a good measure.”
“I am not saying that all our problems have been solved. But we can see that there is a positive change,” he added.
Shafeeq Khan, another labourer in Jebel Ali said,“We now feel more secure than ever before.”
LABOUR PROBLEMS: THE KEY ISSUES
Most of the labourers coming to Dubai with a dream to provide a decent living for their families back home have been victims of an unscrupulous recruiting mafia.
Recruiting agents normally charge a huge amount from the labourers ranging anywhere between Dh 10,000 and Dh15,000.
Most labourers collect this money by selling their properties and borrowing from local money lenders, on an annual interest of 120 per cent.
Some private sector companies often delay salary payments without enough justification.
Although the municipality regulates the maintenance and facilities of labour camps, many companies slip through the monitoring mechanism, especially where minimum space regulations and general hygiene standards are concerned.
Ignorance of labourers regarding their legal rights and entitlements
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