The labourer riot that made headlines around the world

As worker demonstrations turn violent and the treatment of migrant labourers becomes an international news story, authorities in the region are under increased pressure to contain the emergence of a disaffected construction labour force. Sean Cronin and Conrad Egbert report.

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By  Sean Cronin and Conrad Egbert Published  March 1, 2006

When site workers employed by Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke went on the rampage through the Burj Dubai Old Town site last month, it made headlines around the world. The story was carried by broadcasters including the BBC, ABC and Al Jazeera. The next day it had made it into the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Toronto Star and scores of other newspapers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The fact that this occurred on the site of the world’s tallest new tower was one reason the story was so widely reported. Another was that it was the first time the word ‘riot’ had been used in the now almost daily reports of construction workers protesting on the streets of Dubai, Doha and Bahrain. It marked a new phase in the deteriorating industrial relations within the industry and a fresh challenge for regional authorities. Disaffected migrant construction workers in the Middle East are now an international story. “There’s definitely been an upswing in the number of disputes,” said Associated Press journalist Jim Krane, who broke the story of last month’s riot and witnessed its aftermath. He said: “A number of trailers had been trashed, with their windows broken. It looked like files and computers had been thrown out of the windows. There were also a couple of dozen cars that had been vandalised.” In a city where stories about labour abuses are commonplace, the trigger for last month’s riot was surprisingly banal — or at least it seemed so. “The main problem arose from the buses that were transporting us between our camps and the work site,” said an Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke mason, who wished to remain anonymous. “It was just a silly system which they were being stubborn about changing. No bus would leave until all the workers were in their appropriate buses — if there are a thousand workers and about 20 buses, plus the time it takes to clock off for each worker, it all adds up, resulting in us getting back to our camps two or even three hours later, depending on the traffic. And it was the same story in the mornings while going into work — we were getting up two hours earlier in the mornings.” Elsewhere in Dubai that week, another protest, not so widely reported, also threatened to turn violent as around 4,000 construction workers staged co-ordinated demonstrations at their Sonapur and Jebel Ali labour camps. The workers were employed by Bu Haleeba Contracting Company, and their protest related to the electricity and water charges they are required to pay at their labour camps. Construction Week witnessed the Sonapur demonstration, which at one point threatened to turn violent, as three police cars were surrounded by workers, and windows in the camp canteen were smashed. The increased militancy of construction worker demonstrations in Dubai poses a potential problem for authorities in the emirate, which last year formed a special taskforce to tackle the problem of construction worker grievances against their employers. The Permanent Committee of Labour Affairs was established to hear worker complaints against their employers and to investigate alleged abuses. It was one of several initiatives launched last year aimed at improving worker welfare and reducing the number of demonstrations. Made up of officials from the police, Dubai Municipality and the Immigration Department, the committee has been kept extremely busy in recent months as disputes have become more frequent in the city. Until now, its approach has been worker-friendly, and it has encouraged labourers with grievances to call its hotline. But it may find it difficult to adopt such a conciliatory stance if protests turn into full scale riots where security guards are attacked and property is damaged. Both Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke and the Permanent Committee of Labour Affairs declined to comment on the riot. However, it is understood that the contractor has since increased salaries by around two dirhams per day and increased the number of punching booths used by workers to clock on and off. Buses are also now being allowed to leave the site as soon as they have a full complement of passengers. The negative media image created by such incidents is causing a problem not just in Dubai but also in Qatar, which has also suffered from a spate of recent protests. On the same day that workers rioted on the Burj site, an estimated 1,000 Nepalese construction workers downed tools in Doha after their employer deducted charges incurred in processing their visas from their pay packets. The impact of deteriorating industrial relations in the construction industry within the region may not just be confined to the countries involved. There are also potential trade implications, according to some commentators. “Certainly the worker issue and the absence of collective bargaining was a sticking point in the trade talks with the US last year,” said one Dubai-based media commentator. The protests have also attracted the attention of human rights activists, including New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Hadi Ghaemi, who recently visited the country on a fact-finding mission. He said: “The Burj development site demonstration has attracted a lot of attention all over the world. And I’m sure this would also affect the free trade agreement as human rights is a big issue for the US.” However, other analysts have downplayed the significance of labour issues in US-GCC trade negotiations. Zahed Chowdhury, head of research at HSBC Bank said: “I don’t think the previous demonstration would affect the Free Trade Agreement with the US as the country has signed up with many other countries that have worse records of human rights.” Whether or not the fall-out from labour disputes within the GCC construction industry impacts on trade ties with other countries, the emergence of a disaffected labour force is becoming an issue not just for contractors in the region but for governments as well.

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