Sunday, January 22, 2006

Workers' plights or workers' rights? :: Gulf News

Nicholas Coates, Assistant Editor at the Gulf News, writes a strongly worded opinion piece on the low-income labor market in the UAE. I shall not quote it extensively; read the whole thing.

A few extracts, beginning with the opening paragraph:
It is disgraceful what many low-income workers have to suffer. Delayed salaries; poor living conditions; illegal charges made upon their incomes; inadequate or non-existent time off, including holidays; absence of medical coverage; compulsory purchase of visas and government fees; financial penalties for any defaulting behaviour.
The items listed above are not all of the same kind. Delayed salaries, for instance, are a clear contract violation. Poor living conditions are not necessarily a contract violation. Indeed, if government were to enforce a minimum on living conditions workers could end up worse off. This is because workers may not value the improved living conditions as much as it costs the firm to provided them. That is, the worker may prefer the cash to the improved living conditions.

There are clearly great possibilities for abuse, however, under the conditions by which low-income workers are hired in the UAE and other GCC countries. First, these workers are recruited from abroad and have limited education. They may believe many unwritten promises that are not fulfilled. Second, and very much related, once they arrive in the UAE their work visa does not allow them to change jobs. The second condition is the root of the problems we see.

Another quote from Mr. Coates:
It is no use government officials asking an unpaid worker, who is without pay for 5 or 6 months, for a fee to register the complaint, when the worker cannot even afford food. Greater sympathy and understanding of the issue must be shown.
It is these people who suffer most when a company defaults in paying its workers' rightful entitlements: wages. For, if the company is in financial difficulties not only do staff go without a salary, they often find conditions in their work camp rapidly deteriorate and food no longer provided. Without proper living quarters and without food (and often water and electricity), the deprivation workers go through is totally inhuman.

It is the reporting of conditions of such workers that brings disgrace upon the business community in the UAE, and ultimately shame upon the whole nation as the reputation goes abroad that workers' rights are not protected.
. . .
It is long past time the government took harsher measures against recalcitrant or errant companies and the managements. Too many company managers are allowed to flout authority and the labour laws and abuse the rights of their workers.
I agree. And what does disgrace and shame bring? If low-wage workers being recruited to come to the UAE know anything they know that one needs to be skeptical of the promises recruiters make - because news of the troubles with enforcement of contracts and unfulfilled promises in the UAE does get back to source countries through the media and by word of mouth.

So, who else is a victim of unscrupulous employers in the UAE? The majority of employers who are honest, but have to live under the cloud of the reputation the country has earned. The dishonesty of other employers is hurting them in the pocketbook. This, too, is a reason for firm government action.

I concur with Coates' suggestions for improvements (see the article for details). But, again, I would go farther and make the work visa portable so the worker can leave the employer and take up employment elsewhere in the UAE. Without that power in the hands of the worker, the government will be very busy if its aim is to protect workers from abuse.

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