Indian site workers resist lure of better pay and stay at home

Indian construction workers are no longer crossing the water in their droves to enjoy the higher wages on offer on construction sites in the Gulf. Tim Wood reports on why staying at home is now a far more attractive proposition.

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By  Tim Wood Published  April 15, 2006

With an estimated eight out of 10 construction labourers in the UAE currently hailing from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the Middle East has clearly proved an attractive destination over the years. But that could be all set to change following a significant pledge by the Indian government two months ago “that its major focus will be on the development of infrastructure, like housing, airports, roads and ports”. Construction spend in the GCC may be set to surpass the US $200 billion (AED735 billion) mark by the end of this year, but the Indian subcontinent is not lagging behind. Infrastructure development in India has taken off in a major way in the last two years and it is the construction sector that has become the biggest beneficiary. Construction is now the second largest economic activity on the subcontinent after agriculture and investment; it accounts for nearly 11% of India’s Gross Domestic Product. In the last two years the Indian construction industry enjoyed a 9.9% surge in growth, and this is expected to break through the 10% barrier each year between now and 2008. So with the mixture of a long-term business boom and improved wages, better training facilities and improved working conditions for workers, a healthy framework has been produced to entice the Indian construction workforce back home. Sohail Vakil, owner of Al Vakil Recruitment Services in Dubai, agrees: “Training has improved dramatically over the past couple of years, meaning workers are more skilled and better qualified, and can justify higher rates of pay. “On average, wages in India have risen by as much as 20% to 30% in the past two years, but in Dubai, salaries have fallen by something like 10% to 15% over the same period. “An engineer in India, for example, can now expect to earn INR25,000 a month, equivalent to AED2,000 while in Dubai the same salary would be about INR37,000,” he says. “The money may still be better for Indian workers here, but it is not as good as two or three years ago, and many are deciding to stay at home rather than work as immigrants.” Rashi Kamaal, manager of Asia-Gulf Recruitment Services, also in Dubai, concurs that better wages are on offer in India. He adds that even though workers could earn more in Dubai, the cost of changing money to local currency, or the transaction fees to send cash home, means there is actually less in their wage packets. Kamaal adds that many are also choosing to stay close to their families because of the poor conditions they were forced to endure in the Middle East. Many labourers in Dubai sleep in over-crowded dormitories, and work long shifts for their low wages, in jobs that offer no security. Some are also forced into buying their own visas, which can amount to a staggering $2,300, even though by law it is an expense that the employer should be responsible for. Loans have to be taken out to cover the cost, but with interest rates of up to 36% per year, much of the monthly wage is swallowed up on the repayments. Although more Indians are leaving the Gulf in their droves, some of those that remain have decided to fight back. Demonstrations and strikes took place on the streets of Qatar and Bahrain earlier this year, while one such protest at the Burj Dubai Old Town site in Dubai last month, made headline news across the world. For some, however, the show of defiance has come too late. Statistics from the Consulate of India in Dubai reveal that in 2005 at least 24 Indian construction workers committed suicide in Dubai — accounting for more than a quarter of all suicides involving expatriates from the country. With prospects improving at home and wages slowly creeping up, the dormitory life of the emigrant is fast losing its appeal for the subcontinent’s vast army of construction workers.

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