DUBAI // Some Chinese labourers say they are routinely assigned nine-hour workdays, seven days a week, a violation of UAE labour law.
Such a schedule is standard in China. In the Emirates, however, regulations stipulate that labourers can work a maximum of six days a week, for eight hours each day, plus a maximum of two hours a day of overtime, for which they would be compensated at a special rate.
If labourers work seven days a week, they can do so every other week only, and must be given extra pay, said Maher Alobad, director of inspection at the Ministry of Labour. "Everybody must accept the law," he said. "The labourers should come to any Labour Department office and make a complaint."
Some 3,000 Chinese companies operate in the UAE. Although most of the companies are involved in trade, Chinese construction workers here number in the thousands.
Several labourers working on projects of two Chinese companies said they earn as much as 6,000 Chinese yuan (Dh3,300) a month for a 63-hour work week. Some days, depending on project demands, they work a few hours extra at the regular hourly rate of compensation.
"Chinese labourers all work seven days a week. This is the custom in China," said a manager at China State Construction Engineering Company, a leading state-owned enterprise and the largest Chinese construction company in the UAE. The company employs 4,500 workers in the UAE - a third of them Chinese. "They can take a day off or a sick day, but they will not get paid."
"There is no law here," said one worker who asked not to be named. "Whatever they say goes." But China State Construction Engineering denied such a schedule was routine. "We request them to have a half-day off," said Li Xiaohan, the company's labour department manager, who is based in Dubai. "I don't want them to go every day for the whole year. It's not good for their health. They will not be able to finish their contract."
At the same time, he said, site managers have discretion over employees' hours depending on project demands. Chinese labourers said they often work through local holidays - unless their partner companies rest, making them unable to work. They do, however, get time off - three days at the most - for major Chinese holidays such as the spring festival, the mid-autumn festival, and the dragon boat festival.
In China, by contrast, labourers normally get several weeks off to travel to their home villages during holidays, said Liu Kaiming, a labour expert at the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the Chinese factory city of Shenzhen. In the UAE, though, Chinese workers can earn nearly twice as much as they could back home.
At another UAE-based Chinese company, whenever extra hours were offered on top of the nine per day, so many workers volunteered that managers did not have to pick anyone, said an employee who asked that his name and the name of his company be withheld. "When you're feeling good, you want to work overtime. When you're not, you don't," he said.
Indeed, for many workers on seven-day schedules, burnout comes quickly. "If we were at home we could have left our jobs, but here we cannot," said one labourer, who arrived in the UAE six months ago. "We don't know where to go to complain. We don't want to make Chinese people look bad." "In any case, the salaries in Dubai are high. So we just let it go," he said. "We will work for two years and go home."
Even the most diligent need an outlet
DUBAI // With so few spare hours, Chinese labourers in Dubai spend much of their free time resting and preparing for the next day back on the job.
But many find the time to get away from camp, even if they live in the middle of the desert and their managers frown upon them leaving their lodgings.
“We cannot control them. We have a huge number of labourers. They cannot speak English and they cannot speak Arabic, but they get out,” said Li Xiaohan, a labour department manager at China State Construction Engineering Company.
Labourers living in the city – for example, in Al Quoz – can easily stroll to a nearby plaza. Yet even at remote sites, many find ways to visit Chinese hubs like Dragon Mart in International City. They have taxi drivers who know how to reach their camp and take them back.
Some get away by going for a walk in the desert. In the evening breeze that blows through the dunes, they chat with friends, sitting on plastic stools half-buried in the sand.
On Friday evenings, some labourers go to church. Clutching ID cards that explain where they are going in case they are stopped, they pile into buses provided by their pastors.
Most nights, they just wash, eat and relax before heading to bed.
At some sites, labourers watch television in a common room, read Chinese magazines or play table tennis or basketball. Others download films on their phones to watch alone. Later the men duck behind colourful blankets strung up over their bunk beds and rest until dawn signals the beginning of the next work shift.
* Carol Huang