x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

For many labourers, bank machines are as cryptic as the Rosetta Stone

Months after the introduction of the Wages Protection System, thousands of workers are still struggling to gain access to their cash because the ATMs are in English or Arabic.

ABU DHABI // Although Shaikh Ahmad can read Bengali, the ATMs near his work site in Abu Dhabi use only English and Arabic. The construction worker's friends have the same problem. So one evening every two weeks, the group huddles around an ATM as their foreman J Prakash - who himself has only a basic grasp of English - punches in their PINs and gives them their cash. "I help them as much as I can," Mr Prakash said. "But if they come alone then they are afraid to press the wrong buttons and then the machine can take away their cards."

Months after last year's introduction of the Wages Protection System (WPS) by the Ministry of Labour, thousands of workers are continuing to struggle to gain access to their cash. Although the system was designed to keep track of all salary transactions, and ensure workers were paid on time with no wages withheld, for many of them it also meant using an electronic bank machine and card for the first time - in a language they do not know.

Jaana Quaintance, an associate with Impactt Limited, a labour standards consultancy group, said she had heard many complaints from factory and construction workers about the hurdles involved in using their ATM cards. "Workers are asking people at the point of withdrawal to help them," said Ms Quaintance. One of the biggest problems is workers sharing their PINs to get at their cash, she said. "They need to make sure that the PIN, that even if the worker asks for help at an ATM, is punched in by the worker," she said. "They need to tell them not to give out that information," she said.

Given the size of the country's foreign workforce, she said banks should incorporate more languages, diagrams or pictures on their ATMs. This is a massive project teaching so many workers to use a machine," she said. "That was always going to be a challenge." Educating workers in smaller companies has been less of a problem because the scale is easier to manage, said Samir Kantaria, a lawyer and head of employment practice with Al Tamimi and Company.

"But for those who cannot understand English or Arabic, the system is useless," he said. "They are going to be conned along the way. It is difficult unless they have people who they can trust. To a certain degree it defeats the purpose." Mr Ahmad is among those pleased that the system means being paid on time every month, even though he must use an electronic system that confuses him. "For many of my friends, their cards got taken away by the machine," he said. "Then they had to wait for two weeks for a new card and that makes them very worried. First they had to report the missing card to their managers and then re-register all their details, all because he forgot his PIN number and entered it wrong many times." Companies with more than 15 workers have already moved over to the WPS, while the smallest firms have until the end of this month to do so.

ABU DHABI // India is preparing to bring in a wage payment system similar to what UAE introduced last year to ensure workers are paid on time. The bill would cover day labourers, who are paid cash, as well as others including domestic maids. It has been introduced by the Ministry of Labour in India but has yet to become law. M K Lokesh, the Indian ambassador to the UAE, said the bill, which would also implement a minimum wage, has been in the making for "some time now". Although the law has not been passed, planning has been ongoing and momentum has been gathering to do so. "I am sure they have borrowed from various countries and adopted it to the domestic market," he said. As with the Wages Protection System in the UAE, under India's new system workers would be paid through financial institutions that have been certified by the government, with money transferred directly to their bank accounts. India poses particular challenges, however, including that a majority of its workers are illiterate and do not possess bank accounts. In some cases, they live in shanty towns and lack the proper home addresses needed to open bank accounts. @Email:sbhattacharya@thenational.ae