Sometime this summer, 400 or so labourers toiling at a steel fabrication firm in Dubai lost their jobs. Five months on, most of their lives remain on hold, and many are living without food or shelter.
Help has been forthcoming. As The National reported this week, the Overseas Residents Malayalees Association (Orma), a Dubai-based aid group, has been feeding the abandoned workers. Their efforts are clearly laudable.
But the real tragedy here is that Orma's work is necessary at all. The UAE has laws on the books meant to protect foreign labourers from this very situation, but loopholes are still allowing some to fall through.
The UAE's Ministry of Labour requires companies that hire foreign employees to deposit cash guarantees in certified bank accounts as collateral. In January, the Ministry further toughened these rules, mandating recruiting agencies to put up their own bank bonds, bringing the total to Dh5,000 cash to cover lost wages.
These moves were seen as particularly welcome in the construction sector, where non-payment of wages and company closures have plagued many. But as the recent case illustrates some workers are still falling through the cracks.
For a start, many companies have flouted the new laws despite the threat of financial penalties, or are not paying the guarantees in the first place. Worse, there are legitimate concerns that funds set aside for the bonds can be misappropriated or stolen.
Labour officials have pushed through important labour reforms in recent years. The Wages Protection System was launched in September 2009 to create a link among the ministry, the Central Bank and all banks and money exchange centres so wages are paid on time and can be monitored. Also, workers who have not been paid for more than 60 days can legally transfer to another organisation without permission from their employer, a rule rarely invoked by labourers not in possession of passports and unwilling to give up on sums owed.
In practice however, as the most recent case shows, these measures have not always panned out. For all workers to be protected, and paid, rules meant to reform the labour landscape need the loopholes closed.