Thursday, March 30, 2006

UAE: Address Abuse of Migrant Workers (Human Rights Watch, 29-3-2006)

Human Rights Watch recently conducted a fact-finding mission on the conditions of migrant workers in the UAE and will be releasing its full findings in the next few months.
There is much in this report that is accurate. There is much in this report that is embarrassing to the UAE. But much of what is embarrassing is only embarrassing because many good-intentioned people believe the UAE should be ashamed of the way it treats low-skilled immigrant workers while in fact the workers like it that way.

If those people could carry out their good intentions many of the workers they intend to help would in fact either lose their jobs or see some of their salaries diverted to be spent on things they would rather not buy like better living conditions or safer working conditions.

There is a reason that the UAE has the highest net immigration in the world: it is the land of opportunity for many impoverished people who prefer working to being trapped in their home country, and who would prefer to trade higher wages to better living and working conditions. It's revealed preference - no one is forcing them to come the UAE, and if workers really did prefer better living conditions innovative firms could offer better conditions at lower salaries and hire workers for a lower total cost than existing firms.

There is a direct parallel in the working conditions of the grandfathers and great grandfathers of the citizens of the UAE today. Many of those men worked in the pearl diving industry and lived in squalid conditions at sea for months, not seeing their families, and eating retched food. In the profit-sharing arrangement of that time those awful conditions were the choice of the workers collective.

Just as in the time when pearl diving thrived what was most difficult to enforce was payment of what was due to the workers. With pearl diving you might be able to verify the catch by opening the pearl bearing oysters together. But there remained the problem of the unfaithful agent who sold the pearls and may have taken a hidden side payment from a pearl buyer cheating the divers out of some of their share of the revenue.*

Likewise, today, we hear frequent stories of workers not being paid when promised and in some cases not being paid at all. In a country that does not allow workers to change jobs to protect themselves from dishonest or incompetent employers, 80 labor inspectors for something like 2,000,000 expatriate workers is a ridiculously small number. Either increase the number of inspectors considerably and give them significant enforcement power, or - better - let workers change jobs. Do one or the other or both. But don't do virtually nothing.

samuraisam draws our attention to this quote:
"To link what happened [protests] to the construction boom in the country - which represents a sign of progress in the region - or to negotiations on free trade is really devious, illogical and insane," labor minister Ali Al Kaabi told the Al Khaleej daily.
As the reader will infer, I agree with the labor minister that report contains much that is illogical. Labeling it "insane" is too strong, especially when there is some truth to the abuses enumerated.

*Ironically, the stories of these heroic men are best told in a book that is banned in the UAE, Shaikhdoms of Eastern Arabia by Peter Lienhardt. Probably it is banned because of a few lines in the author's acknowledgments that is interpreted as defaming a royal. Or perhaps it is the discussion of piracy in the early 20th century. If you are interested you can probably read some of those bits by following the link above and then going to explore.

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