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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 January 2019

Abu Dhabi court to provide basic services to unpaid workers caught in legal disputes

The food and transport card will be issued to low income workers who have not been paid their wages for months

Workers involved in labour disputes will be given a card that provides them with food and transportation costs for the duration of their proceedings. Silvia Razgova / The National
Workers involved in labour disputes will be given a card that provides them with food and transportation costs for the duration of their proceedings. Silvia Razgova / The National

Low-income workers who have not received their wages on time will be given a card that will pay for food, transport and other costs until problems with their companies are resolved.

The move, announced by Abu Dhabi Judicial Department on Monday, is intended to provide labourers with financial support and legal counsel while their wages are being withheld.

Officials said they have had desperate workers approach them unable to afford basic needs such as food, shelter and transport costs because of extreme debt.

The “happiness card” will be available to such workers in the next few months, legal consultant Judge Benjimin Burgher said.

Services provided by the card include legal guidance.

Mr Burgher said many of the labourers caught up in such cases earn less than Dh3,000 a month and had not received their wages for months.

“They can’t afford to get to court,” the Briton said.

The judicial department is also working with agencies such as the Department of Transport and with hospitals, said Fatima Al Bedwawi, the head of its human rights section.

The card will be awarded by a judge to eligible workers for use until the case is resolved.

“Vulnerable workers who have demonstrated that they have no money will be eligible for the card,” Mr Burgher said.

“The ministry will identify them. If you have an employer that has run away or a company that has collapsed, then the employees need support.”

Last year, prosecutors dealt with almost 10,000 labour disputes, not including 6,000 group cases.

The number represents a 40 per cent decrease from the year before when 16,897 cases were brought before Abu Dhabi courts.

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Officials attribute the reduction in cases to increased legal knowledge among labourers after awareness campaigns and visits carried about by the department.

The campaigns involve educating workers about their rights through lectures and arming them with knowledge to settle issues outside of the system.

Legal wrangles between employer and employee can be sparked by problems ranging from hours to benefits and salary concerns.

“All cases generally start from workers not being paid,” Mr Burgher said.

But he said he was pleasantly surprised by the degree of legislation protecting workers’ rights in the UAE.

“The images I was getting in the UK were all very negative but when I came here, I saw that there are lots of good going on,” Mr Burgher said.

He disputed the “western” understanding of the kafala system, saying it was merely a sponsorship scheme that existed worldwide for non-citizens working abroad.

“The kafala system is the sponsorship system, which exists England,” he said.

“You can’t work in England without sponsorship and I am here under the sponsorship of ADJD.”

Under UAE law, it is illegal for an employer to retain a worker’s passport and “employers are not entitled to abuse their workers,” Judge Burgher said.

“That is not the kafala system, it is abuse. There is abuse here and there is abuse unfortunately all over the world. There is no way any society can work without a sponsorship system”

Generally, labour disputes are settled at the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation, although the ministry has no judicial power, which is why unresolved cases are sent to the court for a solution.

The Chief Justice of the Labour Court, Abdullah Al Nuaimi, said that collaboration with the ministry was a priority.

“The more cases that are settled by the ministry and the more cases that are filtered out, the better for the reputation of the UAE and the less pressure on the court system,” Mr Al Nuaimi said.

The “happiness card” is the latest in broader efforts in the UAE to better resolve disputes between companies and workers, typically over wages.

New measures passed by the Cabinet in 2016 were an update to the long-standing Wage Protection System, which is in place to track whether a company pays its employees on time or not.

If wages are 10 days late, the company is alerted that it is in breach of labour rules. If wages remain unpaid for a total of 16 days, the authorities can cancel work permits, effectively shutting down operations.

Fines of up to Dh5,000 for each unpaid employee follow after 60 days.

Despite those measures, late payment of wages remains an issue, particularly in the building sector, and the authorities have urged employees to report their companies at the Labour Ministry or at one of the 15 Tawafq service centres in Abu Dhabi.

Updated: December 11, 2018 02:51 PM

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