x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Breakthrough year for welfare of UAE's blue-collar workers

Better living conditions and enforced breaks also helped changed workers' lives for the better during 2009, labour market experts say.

ABU DHABI // The past 12 months will be remembered as a "breakthrough year" that improved the lives of blue-collar workers and vastly increased their chances of being paid on time, according to labour market experts.

While the construction industry was hit by stalled projects and job losses, employees' working and living conditions were enhanced by a new electronic wage transfer system, the opening of modern accommodation sites and a summertime health and safety campaign. According to employers and workers, the introduction of the Wage Protection System (WPS), which obliges all firms to pay staff wages via electronic transfer rather than in cash, was the defining development of the year.

It was designed to help the Ministry of Labour keep track of salary transactions. The electronic records enable the ministry to monitor late payments and to take action against defaulting companies. "WPS is possibly the most significant development, not just this year, but in recent history," said Samir Khosla, the vice chairman of Dynamic Staffing Services, a labour recruitment firm. "The magnitude is so immense that it outshines everything else.

"With regard to living standards for workers and safety issues as well, this has been a breakthrough year." The Vietnamese ambassador to the UAE, Nguyen Quang Khai, said in his experience most of the growing Vietnamese labour force benefited from the WPS scheme. Last year there were some 2,000 Vietnamese workers in the Emirates; this year there are about 5,000, he said. "Generally speaking, the Vietnamese workers have been treated very well this year," he said.

"Most of them have had their salaries paid on time. This is especially true of those working in the Government sector." He said his embassy had still received complaints from some workers in the private sector who had not received their pay on time. "But our workers are very happy to hear of the new electronic wage system," he said. "Compared to other countries in the Middle East, I do believe that the UAE treats expat workers, especially the Vietnamese, better."

Workers from the Philippines, which make up one of the largest workforces in the country, were also treated well this year, according to Nasser Munder, the Philippine labour attache in Abu Dhabi. There were about 325,000 Filipinos working in the Emirates as of June last year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Philippine officials estimated an additional 200,000 live and work here now.

"This year has been a much better year for Filipino workers," Mr Munder said. "We have received fewer complaints this year from workers." However, he said, the majority of workers were uncertain about the future. "Because of what happened to Dubai this year, many have refused to transfer employment," he said. "They have become more cautious and are willing to stay put because they fear that the phrase 'Last one in, first one out' might apply to them."

Sixty per cent of expatriate Filipinos are skilled or professional workers, 25 per cent are in the service sector and 15 per cent are household workers. Mr Munder said his office received fewer complaints this year about a range of other problems, including delays in the conversion of visit visas to employment visas, and illegal salary deductions for visas and air tickets. Prior to the introduction of the new wage payment system, the UAE had come under fire regarding working conditions for blue-collar construction staff.

Earlier this year, a report by the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch claimed conditions for workers on Saadiyat Island in particular amounted to "forced labour". The report said a system should be introduced to ensure workers were paid on time, and the number of worksite inspections should be increased. Ahmed Kamil, the manager of human resources for ETA Ascon Group, a Dubai-based conglomerate that has interests in property and construction, said: "Wage payment is an area in which the UAE has been unfairly criticised. [WPS] should be able to take care of that sort of criticism."

Human Rights Watch did not respond to requests for comments, this week. The year also saw an increase in the number of inspections carried out by the Ministry of Labour to spot break-time violations. The regulation, which was introduced five years ago, requires employers to allow outdoor workers a break from 12.30pm to 3pm in July and August, and to provide them with a shaded, cooled area. There were 75,209 inspections this year,up from 45,985 last year, the ministry said.

This year, 677 companies were fined for breaching the regulation, of which 436 were first-time offenders. Penalties were doubled for the 241 repeat offenders. Last year, 398 firms were fined for midday break violations. In May, the ministry, along with the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) launched a Safety in the Heat campaign to raise awareness among employees of the importance of drinking enough water during the sweltering summer months.

The campaign targeted 465 companies employing more than 800,000 workers at more than 4,500 sites and 1,800 accommodation camps, according to HAAD. "Improving work conditions by implementing correct health and safety measures will not only decrease heat-related illnesses but will also improve health and safety standards and ensure the welfare of our workers," Zaid al Siksek, the chief executive of HAAD, said in November.

Regular inspections were conducted throughout the year to ensure that workers were housed in conditions in line with the law. While legislation has been in place for a few years, it was more widely implemented this year. "It is a powerful example of a law being introduced and followed through," said Mr Khosla. "This shows the resolve of the Government." Saqr Ghobash, the Minister of Labour, this week visited an accommodation camp with a prior record of violations for failing to provide its workers with standard accommodations, said the state news agency, WAM. It was unclear where the camp was located.

Mr Ghobash said they found "a good indication that the proprietors are beginning to be aware of the need for them to abide strictly by the rules and shoulder their responsibilities both ethically and legally". Despite the introduction of the WPS, some disputes over pay still arose this year. Last week's strike action by 900 workers at the Dubai-based firm Robust Contracting Company, who claimed they had not been paid for up to three months, indicated that workers' rights are still abused, although less frequently.

The employees finally received their salaries on Thursday. The company faces prosecution over the delayed payments. "From the individual point of view, the WPS is the proper way of being treated," Mr Kamil said. "But, as we saw from the strike, there are [companies] who don't do it." In the past, he said, "even if a company had good intentions, if a worker was paid in cash, there were always nefarious individuals at the point of distribution who would pilfer the cash.

"WPS destroys that and guarantees that a salary reaches the worker." He said the system would also expose "companies with a legacy of payment issues". "Those that have developed negative habits of delayed wages, they will come to the surface. I am quite sure the Government will deal with them," he said. The WPS also requires companies to make their books available to Government inspectors. This is aimed at ending the exploitation of workers in their home countries, where they often pay exorbitant fees to unscrupulous agents to get a work visa.

"If the Government does not see recruiting costs on the books, then one must ask, 'Who paid it?'" Mr Khosla said. "If the employer did not pay it, then the worker did. The WPS is a way of resolving that issue as well." However, there are areas, such as overtime, that are not covered by the WPS. In late August, hundreds of workers from Al Habtoor Engineering Group, which is behind the construction of the Burj Al Arab hotel, took to the streets to protest about a lack of overtime caused by the postponement or cancellation of construction projects.

@Email:sbhattacharya@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Ramona Ruiz