x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Law still ignored on workers' heat breaks

Most labourers get the legally required rest now temperatures are soaring, but some are still out under the beating sun.

With temperatures soaring, many workers sought to cool themselves with water.
With temperatures soaring, many workers sought to cool themselves with water.

Workers toiling under the afternoon sun were a rare sight during yesterday's first compulsory two-and-a-half hour midday break, but not as rare as the Ministry of Labour might have hoped for.

The break, introduced to shelter and cool workers from peak temperatures between 12.30pm and 3pm for the next three months, put most contractors on guard to keep their employees indoors and rested. During break hours, dozens of work areas in the capital and Dubai were left with empty window-washing gondolas and vacant construction sites. Near the capital's Central Souq around noon, streams of gardeners and scaffolding workers crossed roads to board buses back to their accommodations.

Even so, at least one project continued illegally, despite the Ministry of Labour's restrictions. Six Indian men and a Pakistani construction worker were spotted hammering steel bars at a villa in Al Dhafrah in the capital at 2.40pm. Under a beating sun, the men dangled from beams from the open-roof structure. Not all of them wore hard hats or harnesses. Narindar Singh, 52, from India, said his team had been working since 7am. They had not been informed about their rights, which are that their employers must provide them well-ventilated shelter for rest during the specified time every day until September 15.

"Now break time? Today?" he asked, studying a copy of the midday break law in Hindi. "I don't know this." Gurdeev Singh, 25, also from India, patted his forehead and read over his co-worker's shoulder. The men should show the labour rules to their employer, he said. Tameer Eng Consultants and Tameer Property Enterprises were named as companies behind the project on a worksite sign. Mobile phone numbers for Tameer Properties were switched off. Muhajid al Halangi, the vice general manager of Tameer Engineering, was surprised to learn of the breach.

"Definitely I will speak with the owner regarding this issue," Mr al Halangi said. The Ministry of Labour also promised to look into the matter. Half of the 40 inspectors dedicated to the break will roam the city centre today on the lookout for offences. "At 2.40pm, this is not allowed," said Abdullah al Bahhar, an inspector. "We will visit this area tomorrow. Today [inspectors] are outside Abu Dhabi because we received many calls from outside the city. Tomorrow, the focus of our area will be different. Half will be checking inside Abu Dhabi."

With temperatures yesterday reaching the early 40°C, some workers sought shade by napping under date palms or laying under bridges. Al Husam Group in Abu Dhabi set up fans in the sub-basement carpark of the upcoming Rocco Forte Hotel on Airport Road, where dozens of workers in blue overalls napped on wooden tables, blue tarps and flattened cardboard boxes. Some rested their heads on empty plastic bottles while carpenters behind them built more wooden benches.

"I need everybody to stay in the second basement. It's most comfortable here," said Mohammad Faraj, a project engineer with Al Husam, during a tour of the area. "They use these tables to eat and sleep. We bring fans, and we're requesting another fan to be stuck through the wall. We have some drinking water, we put out ice for them, we make an area for washing their hands." Almost all of the labourers were involved with installing the hotel's glass cladding, Mr Faraj said. Although the air conditioning unit was not yet working, he expected it to begin running today.

"We are making sure it's properly ventilated," he said. "We have to put four or six fans in each area to let them feel comfortable." Steven Van der Vyver, the health and safety manager for Dutco Balfour Beatty, said at other sites workers were given airconditioned rooms and mattresses to lie on. "If this is not possible and it's not far from the camp then they are bused to the camp. But we try to avoid long journeys."

The labour law permits labourers to continue working during midday break hours so long as they are in shaded areas with good ventilation and/or air-conditioning, said Nabil Samad, a site manager with Al Husam. Abu Dhabi Municipality's health and safety manager, Abdulaziz Zurub, noted during a recent seminar on heat-related illness that unscrupulous contractors have in the past tried to set up makeshift shelters "with a small cover with some paper or wood".

"This is unacceptable," he said. "Can we treat our neighbours like this?" Hameed bin Deemas, the acting director general of the Ministry of Labour, said inspectors last year found "a 99 per cent level of commitment" from companies, after visits to more than 76,000 worksites. @Email:mkwong@thenational.ae @Email:rtalwar@thenational.ae