Will the promise of unions be fulfilled?

The possible introduction of trade unions in the UAE is a significant development given the deteriorating industrial relations within the local construction industry. The riot by Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke workers on the Old Town project in Dubai illustrated just how low employer-employee relations have sunk on some sites.

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By  Sean Cronin Published  April 15, 2006

|~||~||~|The possible introduction of trade unions in the UAE is a significant development given the deteriorating industrial relations within the local construction industry. The riot by Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke workers on the Old Town project in Dubai illustrated just how low employer-employee relations have sunk on some sites. Of course construction workers around the world can be a militant bunch at the best of times. In the UK, members of the steel erectors union regularly down tools and man the barricades if their tea bags are found to be the wrong shape — or if someone asks them to erect some steel. In this part of the world, site workers perhaps have more of a case to make for collective bargaining — not being paid for months on end, collapsing from dehydration and having their passports withheld, are a few random reasons that spring to mind. In past issues we have reported how 87 construction workers in Dubai were forced to wait six months for their pay while crammed into a three-bedroom villa. Then there were the labourers in Kuwait who were told they would have to wait two years to get paid because their employer was worried that they might otherwise gamble their wages away — possibly on weekend breaks away from their labour camps to Las Vegas or the Romford Dogs. According to the Labour Ministry, unions could be established by the end of the year, but what form they will take, what powers they will have and what difference they will make, are all questions that need answers. It follows similar announcements elsewhere in the region, most recently in Qatar, which legalised unions last year. It would be encouraging to believe that the move is something more than a knee-jerk reaction to the recent spate of site demonstrations or a bargaining chip in ongoing international trade talks. Is it window dressing or is it a genuine attempt to improve terms and conditions? The truth is we don’t know yet, and won’t, until it is up and running and cutting its teeth on the first disputes to be settled. And there shouldn’t be any shortage of those. Sean Cronin Editor||**||

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