More than half a million migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) face a range of systematic abuses by their employers and the federal government is failing to do anything about it, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Sunday said.
HRW representatives did, however, welcome recent steps taken by the UAE government to address the issues raised in the report, which authorities had received in advance.
“The prime minister’s decree to protect workers’ rights is a welcome step in the right direction,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director. On 7 November, the UAE’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum ordered Minister of Labour Dr Ali bin Abdullah Al-Ka’abi to enforce the country’s labour laws and immediately institute a series of reforms based on the report’s recommendations.
Some of the measures taken by the government in the past week to combat worker abuses include the creation of a specialised court for dealing with labour complaints, the setting up of a special inspection unit, comprising 2,000 inspectors, to monitor labour accommodation and workplaces, and a new law to ensure all foreign workers were offered private medical insurance by their employers.
“But unless the government starts to hold employers accountable for breaking the law, the UAE’s colossal new skyscrapers will be known for monumental labour violations,” Whitson added.
Entitled ‘Building Towers, Cheating Workers’, the rights group report identifies abuses ranging from illegal recruitment practices in the UAE and in source countries, to low wages, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions.
“It is the employers who are violating the laws and it is the government’s responsibility to enforce the laws,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a researcher for HRW and author of the report. He added that most of the UAE’s existing laws already protect migrant workers from exploitation and abuse but that the problem was a lack of implementation and enforcement.
Report is a powerful tool
Analysts welcomed the report, though felt it did not really offer anything new. “We all live here and walk around with our eyes open and see it [worker abuses] happening,” said Richard Dean, a Dubai-based economic analyst.
“But by documenting these issues in a formal structure, it becomes a very powerful tool which can be used to influence policy on the ground. And we’ve seen that happening with the kind of measures taken by the government recently.
“Reports like this clearly have an influence, they are part of the process, but this is not the only thing that’s influencing policy. There’s been an ongoing process of reform in the UAE over the past few years,” Dean added.
Officials estimate that around 80 percent of the UAE’s population of just over 4 million is migrant workers and their families. ‘Migrant worker’ is defined in international law as a person who is engaged “in remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national”.
Workers typically pay US $2,000 to $3,000 in fees for air travel and visas to local recruitment agencies in their home countries – predominantly India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – for the chance of a better life in the UAE. This contravenes UAE Labour Law No. 8 of 1980, which states such fees should be paid by the employer.
“I borrowed [the equivalent of] $2,500 from my brothers and cousins to pay an agency to come to the UAE,” said Mohammed Kamali, 30, a Bangladeshi ceiling fitter for a reputed construction company in Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the UAE.
“I’ve been here 18 months now and am still paying off this debt. With the wages we get, it is very difficult to pay our expenses, pay off our debts and support our families back home,” he added.
Ghaemi said that the recruitment process was exploitative and should be “abolished and overhauled”.
“Pretty much every single construction worker is in debt because of the recruitment process. We hold the UAE government and the governments of the source countries to account for that,” Ghaemi said.
Low wages, poor conditions
Another point highlighted by the report was the low wages the workers receive. Kamali told IRIN that he earns 800 dirhams [$220] a month, slightly higher than the average construction worker wage of $175 per month – a stark contrast to the national average of $2,106 per month.
Kamali shares a room with six other men in a sprawling three-floor concrete complex, locally known as a ‘labour camp’, in the Al Quoz area of Dubai. Nearly 2,000 men from three different companies live there. They are segregated according to nationality to avoid disputes and fights breaking out.
Beyond toilets and showers, there are no facilities in the camp. Workers must find and pay for their own food.
“I spend 200 dirhams [$55] a month on food, which I buy from a local restaurant. I have credit with them which I pay at the end of every month. So far, I have been paid on time by my company, but I worry about how I will live if they withhold payment for any amount of time, as other companies in Dubai have frequently done,” said Kamali.
He uses most of the rest of his salary to pay off his debt and support his family in Bangladesh.
Kamali added that he has no medical insurance but instead his company reimburses him for invoices he brings from a local clinic – as long as they are below $50. If he does not have the money to pay the clinic up front, he again borrows from friends and incurs more debt.
Analyst Dean did not think the burden on the likes of Kamali will be lightened overnight. Instead, for economic reasons, he said it will be a gradual process.
“I think the big issue that we have here is that a lot of the construction companies involved are very influential, from a financial perspective. Whether the contracting companies or the developers themselves, their business models are built on the supply of cheap labour,” said Dean, adding that the price of steel, cement and even architects and consultants has risen considerably in the UAE.
“So these companies can’t really afford to suddenly build great new worker accommodation. They can’t afford to start paying them three times as much because they’re already stretched with the price of raw materials going up.
“For that reason, I don’t think we’re going to see sweeping legislation and enforcement overnight. If that happened, you’d have a lot of developers and contractors going out of business. It would have to be gradually implemented, and then gradually people would have to redo their business models on inexpensive labour, but not cheap labour,” he added.
Click here to read the full Human Rights Watch report, ‘Building Towers, Cheating Workers’