In October of 2008, the Ministry of Labour called for an overhaul of labour camps with the introduction of national standards, spot checks and harsher penalties. In part, labour regulations have been a response to increased international scrutiny; more importantly, there is an awareness that tough labour laws are a benefit to the economy and the country.
At the time, the Minister of Labour, Saqr Ghobash, spelt out the Government's zero-tolerance policy, but it was not just a matter of stricter enforcement. Crucially, he appealed to companies themselves to monitor their labour practices responsibly in order to avoid facing the new penalties. "Hopefully the ministry will never have to use [the new regulations], and we expect the private sector to comply and avoid this happening," Mr Ghobash said.
There has been a marked improvement in working conditions across the country. Concrete measures like the midday break in summer and housing standards at camps have improved many people's lives, while there is a growing awareness of the moral and practical responsibility to treat every member of the workforce fairly. But these solutions have to be part of ongoing process.
As The National reported yesterday, investigators from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority have closed down the catering unit at a labour camp after 117 workers were taken to Madinat Zayed Hospital at the weekend suffering from food poisoning. A further 119 were treated onsite at the camp. Al Jaber Group, the company that operated the Al Gharbia camp, was charged with food safety violations after its catering unit was found to be operating without a licence and under "squalid conditions".
Many firms continue to flout the law, especially when it comes to safety. It is not uncommon for foremen at construction firms to clean up the building sites - and ensure that security precautions like hard hats and safety ropes are being used - on inspection days.
Government regulations are necessary, but it is logistically impossible for all companies to be watched vigilantly at all times. Companies have to take responsibility for their own operations - if they fail to do so repeatedly, their continued operation has to be in question.
In a few short years, labour conditions have improved in many areas. But it is a process that needs continued attention. We cannot wait for 117 people to get sick before we identify a problem.