One strike and you’re out of town?

Deteriorating labour relations in the Gulf’s construction industry have hit the headlines several times this year. International trade union groups hailed an announcement in April from the UAE government pointing to the legalisation of trade unions by the end of this year. But under new labour rules released this month, workers who strike could face deportation. Conrad Egbert reports.

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  September 23, 2006

The planned legalisation of trade unions in the UAE was greeted with enthusiasm by international trade unions and human rights groups in April this year. After a series of demonstrations over pay and conditions that made headlines around the world, the announcement was hailed as a positive development for industrial relations. But five months down the line, those same groups have attacked what appears to be a u-turn in policy, with the publication of rules that raise the threat of deportation for workers who strike “illegally”. What is not clear is whether the threat relates to workers who demonstrate without giving prior notice to the Ministry of Labour, or whether it affects any construction worker involved in a strike or demonstration. Published earlier this month, Article 13 of Law 707 of 2006 says that the Ministry of Labour should delay the issue of a visa for one year to any worker found to be participating in an illegal strike or inciting other workers to strike. The announcement has provoked criticism from several bodies, including Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the London-based Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT). “This is clearly a backward step that has been taken,” Alan Ritchie, general secretary, UCATT, told Construction Week. “The UAE has had a fair share of strikes and demonstrations over the past year and such a move will only worsen the situation. It just doesn’t make productive or economic sense. Such a move may bring a quick, temporary solution to the problem, but it will only worsen the situation in the long run. Without a forum where workers can discuss and present their grievances, how can the economy progress?” Last week UAE Minister of Labour, Dr Ali bin Abdullah Al Ka’abi delivered a statement to the UN General Assembly, outlining current government policy on foreign workers in the country in which he outlined recent reforms, such as outlawing the use of children in camel racing and introducing a summertime midday ban on outdoor working. He said: “Such laws aim to define rights and duties of labourers within the requirements of economic and social goals while taking in consideration national and international commitments as well as ensuring a stable political environment.” The publication of the latest guidelines relating to the issuing of visas to workers could erode what were seen to be more positive signals emerging from the Ministry of Labour earlier in the year, according to Sara Hammerton, spokesperson for the department of trade unions rights at ICFTU. She said: “It is extremely disappointing news as it goes against the positive signals that came out of Dubai a few months ago.” The Middle East office of New York-based Human Rights Watch has also warned that Article 13 could contradict the UAE’s agreement with the International Labour Organisation, which protects the right to freedom of association. Spokesman Hadi Ghaemi, said: “The new laws are directed specifically at migrant workers in the UAE and it’s unbelievable how Article 13 clearly states that workers who strike, demonstrate or instigate strikes, will be banned from entering the country for a minimum of one year. “It is contradictory to the UAE’s agreement with the International Labour Organisation, whose fundamental requirements are the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.” The Ministry of Labour was unavailable for comment.

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