x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Contractors disregard labourers' rights: US

New report says firms hired for projects at Gulf diplomatic missions don't do enough to respect rights of hired blue-collar workers.

ABU DHABI // A US government report has criticised four of its diplomatic missions in the Gulf over the treatment of low-wage employees working for local contractors at embassies and consulates.

In a report unclassified on Monday, the US state department specifically assessed the extent of trafficking risk faced by unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

The report notes that contractors who supply manpower for the US missions' blue-collar jobs disregard the basic rights of their workers, including through: delaying salary payments; "overcrowding, and unsafe or unsanitary conditions" in worker accommodations; debt incurred through the payment of recruiting fees; a lack of understanding of contracts; and confiscation of passports.

Interviews with 75 workers - such as gardeners, local guard staff and cleaners - from countries including India, Nepal, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were conducted at six missions, including those in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi declined to comment, other than to say it had received no specific instructions from Washington regarding the report.

The report is part of regular audits conducted by the US office of the inspector general to promote "effective management, accountability and positive change" in the department.

Some of the key findings of the report noted that "although workers were not bonded to employers forcibly, 77 per cent of contractor employees interviewed reported paying recruiting fees to obtain their jobs, a possible indicator of coercive recruitment".

Although confiscation of passports is illegal in all four countries, contractors cited various security-related reasons for holding onto them.

A majority of workers interviewed said they were not properly informed as to why their passports were being retained.

This and the requirement of recruitment fees, the report notes, indicate coercion and can lead to "debt bondage". That puts the workers at a disadvantage, makes them vulnerable to law enforcement agencies and restricts travel, the report said.

While the report stated that living conditions were found to be poor and overcrowded, and some "fell within the space parameters of a US minimum-security prison cell", labourers in Abu Dhabi were moved in September to custom-built areas and cities designated for workers' housing, built to the latest health and security standards.

Residential areas are equipped to accommodate about 30,000 workers, according to Abu Dhabi Municipality.

The report suggests that the missions provide workers with contract documents in their native language, not just English and Arabic, which a majority of the workers are unable to read.

US embassies are also urged to obtain information about local labour law practices in the four countries, and to monitor all service contracts to ensure they comply with the host country's laws, requesting proof of compliance from contractors.

The report also notes that the missions should consider changes being made to labour laws and regularly update workers on the changes.

In the UAE this year, the Ministry of Labour introduced a set of new regulations to govern labourers and protect their rights.

Harsher punishments for labour law violators, including a black points system, have been in place for the past three years. In September 2009, the Wages Protection System (WPS) was put in place to electronically transfer salaries into the bank accounts of workers, to ensure that the funds are paid on time and in full. The system also allows the Ministry of Labour to monitor delays in salary payments.

From this year onwards, any company that does not have every employee registered in WPS will face black points and a fine of Dh10,000, plus restrictions on hiring.

The Ministry of Labour has also introduced new regulations to govern recruitment companies, with the aim of avoiding exploitation and illegal practices previously common.

The Minister of Labour, Saqr Ghobash Saeed Ghobash, said last month that labour-supplying countries needed to strengthen their laws concerning recruitment firms to allow for better collaboration in protecting workers' rights.

In cases of non-payment, the Ministry of Labour now has the right to liquidate a recruitment company's bank guarantee of Dh1 million and the Dh2,000 deposit for each worker.

Officials from the Ministry have stressed that the confiscation of employees passports is illegal and such cases would be referred to the Ministry of Interior and to court.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

osalem@thenational.ae