Are labour protests fair?

ABU DHABI — The controversial issue of whether labour complaints and protests are legitimate or not in this country has raised a few complicated question marks over how to settle such disputes between protesting workers and their employers.

By Wael Yousef

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Published: Mon 3 Apr 2006, 11:02 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:47 PM

With the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation being heavily critical of the working conditions for expatriate labourers here, the issue has acquired an international dimension, despite a strong rebuttal of HRW's unsubstantiated claims by top UAE and Arab officials.

Though conventionally workers are regarded as the weaker and more vulnerable party in any given dispute that does not necessarily ipso facto give legitimacy to their protest or claims, according to professional industry sources and legal researchers at the federal Labour Ministry.

Habib Rafique Limited (HRL) is a case in point regarding how some companies despite reaching a negotiated settlement with its protesting workers, find the latter still insisting on quitting their job and demanding facilities and privileges to which they are not entitled — such as air fare reimbursements.

HRL settled the dispute with its employees, who had lodged one complaint with the Ministry of Labour on February 25 and another more recently. A legal researcher, who looked into their complaint, advised the company representatives to give the workers the air tickets they were demanding, put a work ban stamp on their passports, and let them go.

The workers initially accepted the proposal, but were surprised when the company instead of given the equivalent of the airfare in cash decided to issued them the air tickets — although it was willing to be flexible on this issue. The law does not compel any company to pay in cash the airfare costs to its workers who may have requested a final settlement of their dues.

The legal researcher who handled the complaint questioned the insistence of HRL workers and observed that they were apparently not interested in conciliatory talks with the company management. This attitude prompted him to call for cancelling the residence visa of the complainants as soon as they had received their dues, and disallow them any option to get their residence visa transferred to any other sponsor.

According to the company representative, the initial agreement between the workers and the company had spelt out that the employees would get their wages which they have not received since December 25.

"When we visited the work site no workers were available," the company representative, who was speaking in condition of anonymity pointed out. He accused another company, which did not name, of seeking to hire their employees.

Many problems, he said, came up simply because some workers chose to incite others; this affected the work progress and their colleagues. He said there were three employees on the payroll of the company, who wanted to quit and leave, but the company did not accept their request because they were needed due to the work exigencies.

Reacting to the company's action, and as an arm twisting tactics, these workers instigated the rest of their colleagues to go on strike in order to achieve their own vested interests, he said, adding that two of the workers returned to work, and requested to remain in the service. The company executives accepted their plea but insisted that they should drop the case they had filed against the company, the representative explained.

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