DUBAI // Hundreds of construction workers in Dubai took to the streets yesterday morning seeking better wages and benefits. Work stopped almost simultaneously at two construction sites operated by Al Habtoor Engineering - at the Jebel Ali port area and the extension of Al Ghurair City Centre mall in Deira. Al Habtoor is known for building the Burj Al Arab hotel and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
Al Habtoor representatives and police said the strike involved about 300 people. But workers put the number of employees close to 2,000, saying many of those took to streets near their work sites. Police and labour officials quickly reached the sites and persuaded the crowd to disperse. Teams of riot police were at the scene but took no action. The demonstration, the first major display of labour discontent since the economic crisis began last year, was triggered by a lack of overtime pay caused by the postponement or cancellation of construction projects.
"Apart from our basic salaries, we are able to manage each month due to the payment we get from overtime work. However, now we barely get any overtime," said Abdul Rahman, an employee of Al Habtoor in Deira. "I just got one hour each day this month." Mr Rahman said he has been in Dubai for 20 years and makes Dh950 (US$258) a month. "Including the wages for overtime, I used to get up to Dh1,500 a month. This is what senior people get, but there are many more with lesser salaries," he said. "With salaries like Dh600 or Dh700, what will I eat and what will I send home?"
Workers gathered at the site at around 6am yesterday and worked until 8am, when they left their work stations and walked onto the streets. Traffic was blocked at the mall work site until police and Ministry of Labour officials arrived. Labour officials were seen urging workers to return to work. "The officials assured us that they are discussing the matter with the company and a solution would be found in two days. We had told them that there would be no trouble from our side for now," said another worker.
The crowd dispersed around 10am and the workers were taken back to their camps. Witnesses described similar scenes in Jebel Ali, where Al Habtoor is building an 18-storey hotel. Workers "put obstructions on the road and managed to stop at least eight to 10 vehicles", said a witness who drove past the area. "Traffic was also slowed down. I parked my car and went to clear the barriers. The workers hurled at least half a dozen stones at me when they saw what I was doing."
Police said yesterday that the problem between the company and workers had been resolved. "There were around 300 labourers, and things were brought under control quickly at both sites," said Col Abdulla al Ghaithi, the acting director of the police's department of organisational safety, protective security and emergency. "There is no problem of salary payment from the company's side and all those aspects are fine. However, work is less and [the workers] are not getting any overtime payment. The workers' main demand is for a salary raise. They have now returned to work. The labour officials and the company will discuss the issue and settle the matter. Besides, it is summer. They get agitated."
Al Habtoor said the protest was a "combination of frustration and payment issues for some of the staff". "We have agreed with them on their concerns. It's a matter of ensuring that they get good benefits for their work and we get the productivity we are looking for," said David Savage, the managing director of the company. The official news agency, WAM, quoted the acting director general of the Ministry of Labour, Humaid bin Deemas, as saying that Al Habtoor was meeting its obligations.