|Labor troubles threaten to stain U.A.E.'s image
|Foreign workers are speaking out
Rising protests by Dubai's construction workers have highlighted faults in the United Arab Emirates' labor laws and revealed abuses in other sectors of its booming economy, forcing a rethink by officials.
And a campaign by international activists aims to pressure the government of the U.A.E., a seven-emirate federation that includes Dubai, to grant more rights to the country's mostly Asian blue-collar workforce.
Gleaming skyscrapers with evocative names like "21st Century" dot Sheikh Zayed Road, a main thoroughfare in Dubai - the Gulf's business center and one of the world's busiest real estate markets.
Dark-skinned men in jumpsuits are busy working on the road's expansion under the blazing sun and in soaring temperatures that often touch 50 degrees Celsius in August. Dozens of cranes jut out on the horizon like mechanical beasts heralding the rise of more grandiose towers, including Burj Dubai, slated to be the world's tallest skyscraper.
Inside the marble-tiled lobby of a residential tower, a doorman leafs through one of the city's English-language tabloids with its daily staple of riots and protests by disgruntled construction workers and warnings by officials to prosecute and deport troublemakers.
The 44-year-old native of southern India, who did not want to be identified for fear of being fired, begins to talk about his own hardship and that of his co-workers employed by a firm managing several buildings owned by Emiratis.
He has been working for the company for 16 years and is paid 1,500 dirhams ($410) a month. But he receives no medical or retirement benefits, is often cheated on his overtime and must pay out of his own pocket the 3,400 dirham fee to have his work permit renewed every three years.
Any complaints to his employer are met with stern warnings of deportation, he said, adding that five of his colleagues were sacked by the company over the past two years after they approached the U.A.E.'s labor authorities.
His attempts to rally his co-workers to strike as a way of putting pressure on their employer have not been successful.
"They are afraid and if I go alone to complain, they will cancel my visa and deport me," the doorman says. "Only if we go as a group will they take action," he adds excitedly.
But unions, collective bargaining and demonstrations are illegal in the U.A.E., which has a population of about 4 million, of whom less than 20 percent are nationals.
The doorman's plight is common for unskilled workers in Dubai. In one of the city's most opulent hotels, a 26-year-old Tunisian worker says he has little leverage to press for his rights.
"I worked non-stop every day from October to February and then they cheated me on my overtime. When I complained, the manager told me: 'Take it or leave it,'" said the worker who also did not want to be named.
Authorities insist that the only channel for labor grievances is a government committee set up a year ago.
The committee's coordinator, Salah al-Falsi, told AFP that it intervened eight times last year to resolve complaints in favor of 19,249 workers.
Officials have been dismissive of a strongly worded condemnation of abusive labor practices in the U.A.E. issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in March following a violent riot at the Burj Dubai site. Some even blamed what they described as "malicious hidden hands" that are riling workers to destabilize the U.A.E.'s prosperous economy.
Since the March riot, in which equipment and cars were smashed, there was another violent protest reported in late April at the sprawling Dubai Marina project.
Strikes and walkouts by workers demanding back pay or better living conditions have become a daily occurrence.
On Tuesday nearly 400 workers of a construction company in the Jebel Ali industrial area protested not being paid for more than a month, according to a Dubai police official.
In an attempt to contain further damage to the country's image as a Middle East success story, the Labor Ministry said in April it would propose a new labor law to the Cabinet this summer. Several requests for interviews with Labor Minister Ali al-Kaabi or his aides to discuss the proposal have been rebuffed.
Government-owned newspapers reported last week that the 29-point plan addresses issues like minimum wage, timely payment of salary, worker benefits and living conditions.
Citing Kaabi, they also announced the opening of a modern housing project for laborers in Abu Dhabi, promising more to come. Papers also reported on April 6 a decision by the labor minister to fix the minimum wage - but only for nationals, who make up barely 10 percent of the country's estimated 2.4 million workforce, at 3,000 dirhams.
Most migrant laborers currently live in rundown labor camps with up to 20 people sometimes cramped in one small room.
But any new labor law is unlikely to include the right to unionize or protest, according to Aisha Sultan, deputy head of the government-sanctioned human rights association formed in March. She told AFP in an interview last week that it would not make sense and may even compromise the country's security.
But there has been no let-up from international rights groups.
HRW has asked the United States and Australia, who are negotiating free trade agreements with the U.A.E., not to sign deals unless labor laws are reformed to allow unions. It has promised to release a full report on labor conditions in the U.A.E. in the coming months.
London-based Amnesty International plans a fact-finding mission to the country in June to examine the issue.
And two Britain-based activists who have spent time in the U.A.E. are urging people to sign an online petition to U.A.E. President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan to allow unions.
"It is the lack of unions which underpins the system of abuse and makes it impossible for workers to demand better conditions or to effectively register complaints," they say on their Web site, "Mafiwasta," colloquial Arabic for the absence of connections that can help get a job or other benefits.
The Daily Star