As the increasingly disgruntled construction workforce continues to lay down their tools and protest about low salaries and mistreatment, it is clear the newly proposed law, which will allow labourers to form trade unions, needs to be implemented sooner rather than later.

Labour stoppages in the region have recently become common, with some two dozen protests last year in the UAE alone - the most high-profile of which took place in Dubai last month.

On a rampage

In late March, the apparently smooth construction on Emaar Properties' Burj Dubai tower, which is expected to be the world's tallest building when completed in 2008, was interrupted after Asian workers - who form some 90 per cent of Dubai's private workforce - smashed cars and offices, causing damages of upwards of Dh3 million.

Some 2,500 workers on the emerging tower and surrounding housing developments, employed by Al Naboudah Laing O'Rourke, chased and beat security officers, broke into temporary offices, smashed computers and files and destroyed cars and construction machinery.

The stoppage triggered sympathy protests at the Dubai International Airport and the new Dh14 billion airport in Jebel Ali where workers also laid down their tools.

Human rights report

The protests came hot on the heels of a critical report by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) watchdog.

The study blamed increasing worker protests on wage shortages and poor working and living conditions, adding that hundreds
of thousands of underpaid workers from India, Pakistan, China and other Asian countries were treated as "less than human".
Hadi Ghaemi, HRW's head of Middle East research, says the potential for such a protest has been bubbling under the surface here for some time.

The latest protest occurred at the Dubai Marina where 2,000 labourers rioted demanding a pay rise.


"There has been a trend of protests in the UAE in recent months so the revolt of the construction workers was not really a surprise," he explains.

"The protest showed the frustrations of disaffected workers had finally boiled over after having to endure squalid living conditions, working long hours without pay and not getting back to their camps until very late at night.

"There is also anger that newer recruits are being paid around a third less than the more established workers."

Linked to suicides

The human rights think-tank insists these factors have led to rising suicide rates among foreign workers here and claims that in 2005, 80 Indian residents took their lives, up from 67 in 2004.

Psychiatrists have blamed the high number of deaths on a lack of social support and feelings of isolation among expatriate workers.

As such, HRW believes the government needs to help fund and create independent bodies to combat the issue.

"The suicide rate among impoverished immigrant labourers in Dubai is a clear reflection of the conditions many workers are forced to endure," says Ghaemi.

"Some non-governmental organisations need to be set up to further look into the reasons behind the suicides and to document what is going on in the construction industry. The wealth being made in the UAE needs to be used to tackle the problem."

Contractors also to blame

Labourers live and work in similar conditions in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar but protests are less common outside the UAE because other governments crack down hard on labour unrest.

And although it is the obligation of the authorities to enact and enforce laws to end the abuses, part of the blame also lies with the contractors themselves.

"Our findings suggest conditions are much worse in the smaller firms," says Ghaemi.

"The scale of the problem has overwhelmed the resources of the government but they need to make sure companies follow the law but smaller employers feel they can get away with anything and that has to stop."

There are other ways

Labour Minister Ali Bin Abdullah Al Ka'abi has disputed much of the rights group's report however, saying a new labour law and other measures were already improving the lot of immigrant workers.

He blamed the unrest on an organised section of workers who were deliberately provoking fellow workers to protest, despite his claims that such issues can be resolved by other means.

He revealed that the authorities were in the process of drafting a law that will allow labourers to form trade unions and pursue collective bargaining, both of which are currently illegal for construction workers here.

The new law, which is currently being discussed with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

Streamlining protests

"We are going to have one union, with separate representatives for the construction, fishing, agriculture and other industries," says Al Ka'abi.

"The law will control how protests will be conducted and will outline rights, the do's and don'ts. There will be a labour representative who will be our point of contact, which will make contact with the labourers much easier."
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) - a global body of national trade unions which has 155 million members in 154 countries - says the UAE government's move is a positive one but wants to see the law applied sooner rather than later.
"The UAE should ratify and implement these fundamental conventions, and work with the ILO to ensure that any restrictions on the fundamental rights of all working men and women in the Emirates are removed," says Guy Ryder, the ICFTU's general secretary.

"The international trade union movement is ready and willing to provide practical assistance to help these workers, many of whom suffer severe ill-treatment through dangerous working conditions, low wages and extremely long working hours."

Special task force

Last year, the authorities formed a special task force to deal with the grievances of construction workers against their employers.

The Permanent Committee of Labour Affairs (PCLA), which is made up of officials from Dubai Municipality, the immigration department and police, was formed to hear and investigate alleged abuses against expatriate workers.

However, any unions that are formed will need to go further than the PCLA's rather limited mandate allows.

"If the newly proposed trade unions are independent and inclusive of all workers and are approved by the ILO they could make a big impression on workers rights. I stress though that they need to be independent and in accordance with international standards," says Ghaemi.

Bad publicity could hamper FTA

Furthermore, the negative media publicity created by the violent protest, which spread worldwide could well hamper the UAE's Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with the US, the European Union and Australia.

Human Rights Watch last week called on these governments to demand improvement of labour practices and legal standards in the UAE before signing such agreements.

The New York-based group also urged these governments to include in any deals reached with the UAE strong, enforceable workers' rights provisions that require parties' labour laws to meet international standards, and the effective enforcement of those laws.

The move to allow labourers to form trade unions and pursue collective bargaining is certainly a step in the right direction but it is clear that much more needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the Burj Dubai incident.

Rhys Jones is a Paris-based journalist who writes exclusively in the region for Gulf News