The Satwa 87: Unpaid for the last six months

Strikes and demonstrations by site workers in the UAE and Qatar have brought a summer of discontent for the Gulf construction industry. In every case, the workers have had their salaries withheld by their employers — for up to six months in the case of 87 workers now living in a family-sized villa in a Dubai suburb. With increasing numbers of workers willing to down tools and take to the streets, Conrad Egbert asks if contractors can afford to ignore the situation any longer?

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  October 15, 2005

From the outside, the villa in Satwa looks like any other suburban Dubai home. But once you walk though the front door, it is obvious that no ordinary family is living there. It is currently home to 87 migrant construction workers from the South Indian city of Chennai, who together share three bedrooms, one toilet and one kitchen. They have not been paid for six months and they are now desperate to return home to their families, who are financially dependent on them. Like hundreds of construction workers who have taken part in protests in recent weeks, their salaries have been withheld by their contractor without any legal justification. Now they are trapped in a state of limbo, hoping to receive at least some of their wages and the price of a ticket home, enabling them to cut their losses and move on. Most of the men are employed by a company called Arab Light Electromechanical Contracting. Demonstrations by site workers in both Dubai and Qatar have become a regular occurrence in what has been ‘a summer of discontent’ for the industry. “We’ve all spent at least US $2700 (AED10 000) on our visas to come here,” says R. Thiruvengadam, one of the 87 construction workers living in the villa. He is 36 years old with family back in India who are entirely dependent on him for support. “We went on strike last Saturday as we couldn’t put up with this anymore. “The owner told us two months ago that he was going to India for 15 days and would pay us on his return. Fifteen days turned into one month and then one month into two months. The only reason he returned was when he heard of our strike,” says Subramaniam Kathiresan, a 32-year-old electrician. “The labour ministry has said that all our dues will be settled by 12th October. “Some of the workers have even run away and are absconding; no one with any self respect would stay like this,” he said. The owner of the company, Kannan Ravi, said: “I’m planning to pay them their full dues in a week’s time. I don’t know why they’ve gone on strike. I told them that I was going on vacation for a few days and that when I return I will pay them.” Ravi is from from Chennai in Tamil Nadu — the same Indian state as all of his 87 employees. At 39, Muthusamy Subramaniam is the oldest worker in the company: “I came here on 21st November 2003 and received my first month’s salary on 1st April 2004.” “Throughout that time, whenever I asked for my salary, I was put off by ten days each time, until six months past. In December 2003, when I called up asking for money I was told that I was going to be issued an advance of $27 (AED100) which a company driver was to give to me, and that I was to be content with that. I never even saw the money,” says Subramaniam. The workers are currently being given food and water by the Indian Community Welfare Committee (ICWC), part of the Indian Consulate in Dubai. The UAE Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has warned that it will start to name and shame contractors who illegally withhold their workers’ salaries. And the ICWC believes the move will help workers get a better deal. “I think the labour situation is going to get better for sure. Now that the labour ministry has become so proactive, people who were earlier afraid of bringing these matters into the open are no longer afraid to approach the authorities,” says K. Kumar, convener, ICWC. “I think companies are being made to realise that if they don’t abide by the UAE law and if they bring shame to the country’s reputation, they will definitely be pulled up and punished.” But the organisation is more upbeat on labour relations than the Satwa workers. “All we want now is to go back home,” says Subramaniam Kathiresan.

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