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Report slams worker treatment

In the week that the Ruler of Dubai ordered a comprehensive review of worker welfare, Construction Week exclusively reveals the findings of a Human Rights Watch report due to be published tomorrow. Conrad Egbert reports.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the UAE’s biggest trading partners to insist on the protection of migrant construction worker rights before ratifying free trade deals.

The demand is contained in the 64-page ‘Building Towers, Cheating Workers’ report, exclusively obtained by Construction Week ahead of its official launch tomorrow (12 November).

The publication of the report coincides with an unprecedented review of worker welfare, ordered by the Ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Among the new measures announced by Sheikh Mohammed are a new dedicated labour court to hear worker grievances, as well as a new inspection agency, with 2,000 inspectors covering sites and labour camps across the UAE.

These measures come ahead of the publication of the HRW report. It urges the European Union, US and Australia to “condition the ratification of free trade agreements with the government of the UAE on improved protection of workers rights”.

The report makes 11 key recommendations for the government to tackle wage exploitation, indebtedness to unscrupulous recruiters and hazardous working conditions.

Among them is a move to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The report also calls for the ratification of ILO conventions on occupational safety and health, and the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families.

But the UAE government has hit back at the claims, saying that expatriate construction workers employed in the UAE should not be classed as ‘migrant workers’.

Report author Hadi Ghaemi has urged the UAE government to provide quantitative and qualitative data on labour disputes, deaths and injuries on construction sites, and government actions to address these issues.

HRW learned that 140 government inspectors were responsible for overseeing the labour practices of more than 240,000 businesses employing foreign workers.

Foreigners constitute 95% of the workforce in the UAE and as of last year, there were 2.7 million foreign workers in the country – around 20% of whom are employed in the construction sector. And while average per capita income in the UAE stands at around US $2,106 (AED7,735) per month, the average monthly pay of a site worker is just $175.

The report also calls for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate and publicly report on the situation of migrant workers in the country, prosecute companies doing business with recruitment agencies in the UAE and abroad that charge workers fees for travel, visas or employment contracts, and aggressively investigate and prosecute employers that violate other provisions of the UAE labour law.

HRW also makes a series of recommendations for the embassies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the UAE, which together represent the majority of the migrant construction labour force in the country. These include the improvement of embassy labour departments, to provide their nationals with guidance, translators and legal assistance.

The report’s recommendations were submitted to the UAE Ministry of Labour on 14 July 2006. But the Ministry of Labour has rejected the demand for ratification of ILO rules on the treatment of migrant workers because it says that foreign construction workers employed in the UAE cannot be classed as ‘migrant workers’ as they are employed on a temporary basis.

In a letter seen by CW dated 28 September 2006, the UAE’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Abdulaziz Nasser Al-Shamsi, says: “Expatriate workers who come to the UAE are aware of their legal status and work according to temporary employment contracts, after which they return to their home countries. “Therefore, the internationally accepted concept of migration does not apply to them.”

Al Shamsi goes on to reject other claims made in the report relating to the policing of companies, the hearing of labour disputes and the provision of occupational health and safety.

He concludes: “The UAE Ministry of Labour devotes the necessary time and effort to examine and arbitrate all labour complaints and disputes and wishes to confirm that the Ministry is open to all workers and employers in the UAE.

“It further stresses that opinions published in the media on labour disputes are merely representing the views of workers and employers and they should not be used as a basis for issuing judgments.”

The UAE Ministry of Labour was unavailable for comment.

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