April 06, 2006
Labour Rights in the Gulf
For decades now, the Gulf countries have built themselves up using a combination of abundant capital and cheap labour. Owing to their relatively small population bases and large oil revenues, importing workers from poor neighboring countries has been easy. Since the 1960s, each decade has seen a large rise in the numbers of expatriates in the Gulf. Proportions vary between the various countries, but the numbers are highest in the UAE, where non-citizens account for some 85% of the population and over 90% of the workforce (including 98% of the private sector).
Many of the better-educated expatriates end up in managerial positions in large companies and do well for themselves. The majority, however, end up doing manual labour. All expatriates working in the Gulf require local sponsors in order to obtain work visas. Changing sponsors is a difficult and expensive task, when it is permitted at all. This practice has ensured that workers remain tied to one company, come what may. Employers have often abused the law (and the very weak labour inspection regime) by not paying workers their meager wages – just $150 per month in some cases – for months on end. Workers, who usually support families in their home countries, are then put into a desperate situation. In many cases, these workers have taken large loans to pay off recruiters in their home countries for a chance to work in the Gulf, imagining that they will make lots of money and retire in relative wealth. Little wonder, then, that some of them are trying to get killed to get back some money for their families.
Since many construction companies are owned by powerful people, including members of the royal families, the names of delinquent companies are often not printed in the press, if protests are reported at all. The government is often in cahoots with these companies. Official daily maximum temperatures in the summer seldom go beyond about 46°C, because outdoor work is prohibited when temperatures rise about 50°C. For the first time, a ban on outdoor work in July and August between 12:30 and 4:30 PM was announced last year in the UAE, but there weren't enough labour inspectors to properly enforce it (80 in a country with at least 2 million foreign workers). Companies in violation of labour laws are seldom given more than a slap on the wrist. They are sometimes banned from getting visas for new workers, but the owners are never personally punished for their crimes.
In the UAE, a minor turning point came last year when unpaid workers blocked Dubai’s main traffic artery, causing 50km of gridlock. Rather than deport them, the relatively progressive labour minister met with the workers and promised that they would be paid. The company was named and shamed in the press the next day, and was publicly told to pay up. The authorities have since set up a phone hotline for labour complaints and distributed a limited number of leaflets informing workers about their rights. Press reports about protests have also become more frequent, although very few of the 500 protests in the country last year actually received any attention at all.
It has thus far been illegal for workers to organize or employ collective bargaining in order to improve their conditions, and this is at the heart of the problem. While there are signs that this might change, it remains to be seen whether any new laws will be meaningful. In Qatar, where trade unions are legal, none have been formed (as of a few months ago). Some limited employee associations are legal in the UAE, but a company must have 50 national employees to qualify – effectively limiting these associations to well-paid banking and insurance sectors where the government forces companies to hire nationals, and where there is little need for association in the first place. As a result, workers have no other means of voicing discontent, and the government prefers not to be embarassed by public protests.
So far, any movement towards improving worker rights seems to be driven by external pressure, rather than any genuine internal motivation. On one hand, awareness is raised by human rights agencies issuing complaints, with additional pressure exerted by the US government during recent free trade talks. On the other, Dubai's government in particular is eager to sell itself as modern and Westernized in order to attract tourists and wealthy Western residents, compelling it to outlaw some of the more visible abuses. For a decade now, workers in the emirate have been transported on buses rather than packed onto flatbed/pickup trucks like cattle. However, workers throughout the Gulf are still largely confined to squalid labour camps on the outskirts of cities, where they are invisible to the general populace. Some categories of low-paid workers live in houses where as many as 12 people share a room in order to save on rent, but they risk being caught by the police and deported for overcrowding. Indeed, ‘bachelors’ – the euphemism for males whose families remain abroad due to government regulations forbidding those earning less than a certain salary from sponsoring family members' visas – are not supposed to live in large areas of Gulf cities. Municipalities have designated these areas as being exclusively for ‘families’ - anyone but single men earning low wages. Much of this discrimination seems unlikely to vanish soon, as seen in a recent decision in Sharjah to prevent members of the working class from using public parks.
Perhaps the scale of violent protests will have to increase before the authorities enact significant reform. Since workers are non-citizens and cheap labour is vital to the economy, they have so far been doing as little as they have felt they can get away with in terms of improving rights.
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Where's John Steinbeck when you need him?
Posted by: matthew hogan at April 6, 2006 08:33 AM
Nice report. This is a really important issue that the governments of the region do their best to cover up.
On that note, this will be one of the subjects of discussion on the 'Have Your Say' program this evening on BBC World Service Radio. So do listen in:
Posted by: Chanad at April 6, 2006 09:07 AM
Yeah I saw on that programme about this. Eerie, how come this is posted under 'nobody'?
Secondly, while the article is great on analysis, I'm trying to think of what the way forward would be? Any ideas, author?
Posted by: Sunny at April 6, 2006 09:06 PM
whoops! saw = was. We ran a story on labour rights in the middle east last week too which the BBC World Service picked up.
Posted by: Sunny at April 6, 2006 09:27 PM
Nobody wants to remain anonymous.
I may yet come up with a more creative name for them, but right now it's "nobody".
How did your BBC bit go? Can we get a recap anywhere?
Nobody, you surely opened Pandora’s box with this report. Migrant workers rights in the gulf are almost non-existent. No wonder no gulf country did sign (or has the intention to be a member of) international treaties which protect the rights of those workers. It is a reality that many ignore simply because they don’t care.
Posted by: Aya at April 7, 2006 12:26 AM
I think UAE has agreed to uphold some ILO standards (e.g. minimum age and forced labour), but very little else, including collective bargaining.
And then there is the issue of enforceability.
Posted by: eerie at April 7, 2006 12:32 AM
"Nobody wants to remain anonymous."
Not true, alot of people want to remain anonymous.
Posted by: matthew hogan at April 7, 2006 09:57 AM
Eerie - heh, why not just create a suitable 'handle'. You're gonna have to get more creative surely, if you get more than one anonymous writer? ;)
You should be able to listen to the show until Thursday on here:
You will have to fastforward to about 20 min in I believe.
Posted by: Sunny at April 8, 2006 10:58 AM
Where did the figure of 500 protests come from?
Posted by: UmmAli at April 9, 2006 08:28 PM
If you're referring to the Bangladeshi protests, then:
I made a slight mistake on the number clearly.
Posted by: Sunny at April 10, 2006 08:58 PM
His Highness, 06-6-06
I Shaikh mohammed abbadi resident
of hyderabad [India],
was an employe in emirates gas [jabalali] and i had also work in defence for 12 years.
when i was on work in emirates
gas time by time i was feeling weak. I went to zulekha hospital [sharjah].
doctor asked me to check creatinine and blood urea. It was more then the normal
level. he said me, my both kidneys had failed at that moment I was shocked.
It was very painfull time for me your highness.
Then i had taken emergency holiday and
come back to India. Facing a lot of problems, by the grace of Allah, I undergone kidney transplantation on 27-10-2004 and my wife was a
donor. then they informed to me come in the alloted time or they finised my job
I went to [DUBAI] after 3months of transplanted but i was finised.I again back to India.I was very much depressed. again went to dubai thinking
of justice. I went to court. they ask me "no objection" letter.but i was failed YOUR HIGHNESS i am totally on depts from head to legs please help me.shaikh my tablets cost is
Rs.20,000/- per month is a life supporter to me.YOUR HIGHNESS I have six children,all
are studying my financial bases also bacome very weak. I could not know that i coud life much more or not Allah no much better. but your highness Allah might have made you
the way to come out from this problem. please help me. Allah grace will be on you always, INSHALLA! MY legal advisor is ahmed
saeed obaid bin meshar.
He know about my situation and have all the details. Its a massage to
shaikh hamdan bin rashid al-maktoum.
Its request please send it to shaikh hamdan bin rashid al--maktoum or show personaly. Allah will help you, Inshallah. contact number:
Posted by: s.m.abbadi at June 8, 2006 12:48 PM
Normally I would junk the above comment, but it's so delightfully weird....
Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 8, 2006 01:52 PM
Hmm, we are apparently supposed to speak on this man's behalf to the rulers of UAE because he couldn't get his job back after a kidney transplant.
So L, can I count on you to ring up the Maktoums this afternoon and sort it out?
Posted by: eerie at June 8, 2006 03:10 PM
You guys are not going to believe this, but the Dubai phone book doesn't list an Ahmed Saeed Obaid bin Meshar! Could it be that this man's call for help is not genuine? Perhaps his real intentions are less than honorable and he just wants to give "a massage to shaikh hamdan bin rashid al-maktoum." What is the world coming to?
Posted by: dubaiwalla at June 8, 2006 04:04 PM
Reads a bit like a response I got once to an online personal ad...
Posted by: Eva Luna at June 8, 2006 04:24 PM