UAE plans construction jobs quota for nationals

Main contractors that employ a set of 50 people or more must employ one national for each set

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By  Eudore Chand Published  November 20, 2004

The construction industry in the UAE may get an annual ‘nationals job quota’, an exercise, which if successful, could form the action model for other Gulf states to follow. The Gulf’s construction industry is the largest employer of expatriate labour and is the most difficult both to persuade nationals to work in and companies to employ those nationals who do want to work in the industry. The UAE’s Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs is reported to have decided on a quota that will require companies with over 50 employees to have a 2% job reservation annually for UAE national jobseekers. This decision, if implemented, will mean that any contracting company worth mentioning will be brought into the quota regime or else face punitive, but as yet, unspecified penalties. It also means that any construction industry-related firms, like those of suppliers or developers that have a minimum staff strength of 50 will have to increase the number of UAE national staff by one every year for every 50 employed. However, the chances of the quota system working appears slim, according to industry veterans. A leading contractor pointed out that his managers have, on average, worked their way up over 20 years. “Our’s is a very serious industry. We don’t want any rich young playboys out there. Somehow, Gulf nationals are just not suited for contracting jobs.” Gulf governments, faced with a young and increasing population, have so far been unable to find a way to get their citizens jobs in the construction sector for a variety of reasons. However, they are unwilling to give up the fight. “Emiratisation is a long-term process that requires involvement of different bodies, including government organisations and private sector companies, to achieve the goal of creating job opportunities for job seekers in all sectors in the country,” says Dr. Abdulrahman Al Awar, director general of Tanmia, the main authority that deals with emiratisation in the UAE. A Tanmia board of trustees meeting has welcomed the move and stressed the need for strict implementation of the job quota decision. In the UAE, 90% of the labour force is made up of foreigners. Not the entire construction industry, but just its general contracting sector, comprises more than 17 000 companies and employs in excess of 346 000 workers or approximately 17% of the total labour force in the country, according to UAE Central Bank figures. The figures do not include either the specialist contracting companies or their staff or non-contracting companies: suppliers, developers, architects, designers or consultants. The situation is not very much different in other markets of the Gulf, which too show a markedly heavy reliance on foreign workers, especially in the construction sector. The figures are on 80% foreign workforce in Qatar, 65% in Kuwait, over 40% in Bahrain, over 26% in Saudi Arabia and more than 25% in Oman, according to figures from the US State Department compiled by Human Rights Watch. The heavy reliance on foreign labour, especially in the private sector, has made it almost impossible for Gulf governments to find jobs for the growing number of their young citizens. Success is patchy in the various countries of the region. The construction sector has been the most difficult to breach. It is not yet known whether the latest effort by the UAE will be successful or whether it will quietly fade away as some of the past efforts have done. The UAE Ministry of Labour has considered various steps to Emiratise the sector, including efforts to encourage it to go in for the more expensive automation rather than get relatively cheap labour from North Africa or the Indian Subcontinent (See Issue 10). “A company like ours has 3500 people on the rolls and we have just 70 nationals. Even then, we are considered as one of the bigger employers of UAE nationals,” said the British managing director of one of the largest contracting companies in the Gulf, on condition of anonymity. “We struggle to find any nationals. Our partners will welcome competent and enterprising young Emiratis. We do find Arabs, but not young UAE nationals. We get UAE national students for summer training and they are very competitive and bright. But we do not find nationals who want to work and who do not expect to be a director within two months,” the official pointed out.

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