Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labour relations?

The coordinated strike action by more than 8,500 Besix construction workers last week was a radical departure from the spontaneous roadside demonstrations that have characterised previous disputes in the sector. Angela Giuffrida and Conrad Egbert report.

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By  Angela Giuffrida and Conrad Egbert Published  May 27, 2006

Just a few blocks away from the Besix labour camp in Al Quoz is the flower-lined living quarters for staff of the Royal Meridien Hotel. The seemingly serene conditions under which the hotel workers live couldn’t be more removed from the crowded, laundry-strewn courtyard of the construction labourers’ block. This is home to some of the estimated 8,500 Besix workers who made history last week when they staged the largest organised strike ever witnessed in the UAE — a dispute that ended with around 50 men branded as the ‘ringleaders’ being deported to India. It was the second day into their strike when Construction Week visited the camp. Amid the midday chaos that revolves around preparing lunch for up to 200 people with just the one communal cooking pot, there was an air of staunch defiance among the several hundred strikers as they clambered to tell us their version of events. “We will not go back to work until our demands are met,” said one Besix worker. “We are being paid US $106 (AED390) per month and all we demand is that we are paid at least $163 per month. “The company has offered a raise to those who have been employed [by Besix] for more than 10 years, but that is the minority of people here. We do not accept that.” In an attempt to get the men back to work, the company put up a notice telling workers that their “salaries would be increased according to government instructions”. “They said we were to call off the strike and begin work immediately,” said another labourer. “But they have not given us a date for when this will happen and we know that once we go back to work, nothing will be done.” Yet their determination failed to overcome UAE labour laws and by Saturday night, the solidarity of the previous day had dwindled away as violent clashes broke out between those who had decided to return to work and those who were determined to continue their strike. The police were called to the camp, and arrested around 50 men, who were subsequently deported. That proved to be the turning point, and by the next morning, most of the men were back at work. “We were pretty much told to go and stuff ourselves — no pay rise except for those who had been with the company for 10 years or more, and even that was only 5%,” said one labourer. Despite the Besix strike being the biggest to have hit the UAE construction industry, and the effort that undoubtedly went into ensuring more than 8,500 workers mounted a coordinated strike, local labour laws prevented them from reaching any kind of favourable compromise with their employer, according to BS Mubarak, the Indian consul for labour and welfare. Besix workers are paid around US $4 (AED15) a day in addition to a $2.30 food allowance. They receive nothing on a Friday, their official day off. “Every country has its own rules and the labour law here says that striking is unjustified,” said Mubarak. “We visited four camps after receiving the strike notice, and found that although there were genuine grievances, they were all outside the framework of the labour laws — which the company was adhering to.” Mubarak added that attempts to negotiate with Besix only returned a small concession to increase the wages of those who had been with the company for 10 years or more. “And people who had worked there for a long time were getting the same wage as everyone else — there is no sort of promotion or increment in their wage structure in place. “We communicated this to the labourers, and they understood that if their demands were not met, then they may have to go home. There was some violence on Saturday night — and they were told that those involved in this would also be deported.” The protest hit 17 major projects across the UAE, including the Burj Dubai and Garhoud Bridge, causing huge losses to Besix, Belgium’s largest construction company. “It did have a big impact on our activity in the UAE — we lost up to AED15 million,” said Bart Wuyts, the company’s communication manager. “We don’t know who organised this. In future, we’d prefer to build better relations with workers about their issues, to avoid strikes.” According to Philippe Dessoy, deputy general manager of Besix’s subsidiary, Six Construct, salaries and conditions were equal or better than other contractors in the region. “We give them what companies usually give in Dubai — they wanted double salary, and we could not accept that. “The Labour Ministry inspected the camp and conditions and had no complaints — everything was above the normal standard for Dubai.” In all the strike lasted five days, cost Besix at least $4 million and resulted in the deportation of 50 workers. But its true cost and significance may not be known for some time.

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