x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pay to leave country, stranded workers told

Bankrupt firm asks for cash to repatriate labourers, but immigration authorities say payments are not required for "gate passes" and eye scans.

Former workers for Al Otaiba and Garg still live in a former company labour camp in Musaffah. The camp will be demolished soon.
Former workers for Al Otaiba and Garg still live in a former company labour camp in Musaffah. The camp will be demolished soon.

ABU DHABI // A construction company representative is asking for cash payments from 27 workers so that they can leave the country after being left stranded when the firm declared bankruptcy, even though two government ministries and a judge have ruled that no fees are required. 

The labourers must either leave the UAE in the next week or find new jobs because the camps where they live are being demolished.

But going home will cost them Dh200 for a "gate pass", or permission to leave the country, plus Dh170 for an eye scan that will allow them to leave permanently, according to Nabeel Abujabarah, the public relations officer for Al Otaiba and Garg, the bankrupt construction and contracting company. A representative for the Ministry of Immigration said there were no such charges levied on those leaving the country, including payments for an eye scan. No fees are required to return to the country after six months, the official added.

The Ministry of Labour ruled last year that the men could take new jobs without incurring fines ordinarily imposed when employees want to switch jobs. "Most of them are old and cannot come back," Mr Abujabarah said. "It is difficult for them to do jobs so they must leave. Most of these people, what they want, I don't know. By Monday, they have to leave, fines or no fines." Mr Abujabarah added that it would cost the men Dh600 to Dh1,500 to apply to stay in the country. He insisted that despite the comments by both ministries, the men were in fact required to pay him the fees.

The workers were left in legal limbo when the company ran into financial problems in 2008. Al Otaiba and Garg declared bankruptcy last year, but the men said work had dried up towards the end of 2008. They have been without salaries since then. When they lost their jobs, the workers, housed in a run-down camp in Musaffah, were unable to find new legal work, and had no food or medical supplies. The Red Crescent provided regular medical visits and food distribution to the camp. In September 2009, the emirate's Sharia court outlined how much compensation 128 of Otaiba's former employees should receive.

Most of the workers, such as Gimmerathi Rai and Phool Chand, worked for the company for more than 24 years. Mr Rai received a total of Dh9,000, and Mr Chand received a total of Dh7,200 for their years of service. Mr Abujabarah confirmed that all the workers received compensation payments after the assets of the company were liquidated. In April, the first batch of 128 workers received compensation, and 45 left the country.

But the men say the fees they are now being asked to pay have taken them by surprise. "The judge told us that there was nothing to pay to anybody so we don't understand why we have to pay these fines suddenly," said Srinath Yadav, one of the labourers. Amar Nath, from India, who worked for the company for 12 years, said he would like to return to work in the UAE in a few years, but Mr Abujabarah asked him to pay a fine for overstaying his visa.

According to the labour laws, anyone who overstays his visa is fined Dh25 a day for the first six months, and Dh50 per day thereafter. Most of Al Otaiba and Garg's workers have been without pay and unemployed for almost two years. "It is not my fault I am stuck here," Mr Nath said. "Why should I pay? I did not break any rules. I did not run away from the company. The company ran away from me." 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae