Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Arabtec Strike - An Inconvenient Truth

English: Dubai construction workers having the...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dubai's largest construction company, Arabtec, has faced a relatively well co-ordinated labour dispute over the past few days, with UAE media reporting on the affair being somewhat patchy to say the least.

Gulf News in its story today says the company's Abu-Dhabi based workers refused to leave their accommodation on Saturday, with Dubai-based workers refusing to work the following day. However, yesterday's Gulf News story "Arabtec workers return to work" is at odds with 7Days' front page splash yesterday, which ran with 'workers down tools' in its story, 'How can we feed our families with Dhs750'?

The Abu Dhabi workers were based at the 'model' Saadiyat Island labour camp, with TDIC, Abu Dhabi's tourist authority and the master developer of Saadiyat Island (where Arabtex is building the Louvre) telling 7Days yesterday all 'workers have reported for work as usual'.

7Days' piece yesterday talked of 'hundreds' of workers on strike, with Gulf News talking about 'thousands' of strikers. Reuters goes with the 'thousands' figure in its story, run by GN today, which has Arabtec as stating 'the delivery of projects was unaffected by what it called a partial labour stoppage.'

Rather than running a Reuters file about a labour dispute on its own doorstep, 7Days today uses that old skill, journalism, to report on the end of the strike, saying that at least 6,000 workers had been involved in the work outage but they now felt they had 'no choice but to return to work as they are poor men'.

Quotes from both sides of the dispute point to a minority leading the majority to take action, which is hardly a surprise. Some workers had talked about being pressurised to join the strikers. And while it's fashionable to wring one's lace hankie and bemoan the fate of the UAE's labourers, these men signed contracts to work for that salary and are being housed in the best quality labour accommodation in the country. They are by no means the worst off - I have heard of Sri Lankan workers' wages in the garment industry here being more in the line of Dhs 400 a month.

It's also worth noting here that their pay, while a pittance by Western standards, is double the minimum wage in much of India and as much as four times the minimum wage in the worst-paid parts of the country. Bangladeshi labourers are comparatively much better off, earning over five times their country's national minimum wage.

On that same comparative scale, a British minimum wage labourer would be pulling in over $8,000 a month in the UAE, with food and accommodation paid for.

And before you pile into me for pointing out this very inconvenient truth, here's another one for you. We are all here in the Gulf on the back of minimum wage Asian labour - it's helping to fund our cosy expat lifestyles. And as you hammer the keyboard of your Mac to leave me an infuriated comment, reflect for a second how happy you were to buy that cut-price product made on the back of minimum wage Chinese labour (paid less, incidentally, than the Arabtec guys) working in conditions so harsh several have taken their own lives and anti-suicide netting is strung up in their labour accomodation.

Labour conditions in the UAE have improved immensely over the past twenty years and are likely better than those of neighbouring countries and although those conditions don't sit well with European sensibilities at times, still the labour comes here because this is still a comparatively better place to be for all of us, labourers included.

Meanwhile, Arabtec has apparently said it will hold the ringleaders 'accountable for their actions', which doesn't really strike that warm fuzzy peach note of conciliation. Bear in mind, too, Arabtec would hardly be pleased at the prospect of increasing the payroll by Dhs200 a month (the strikers' apparent demand) - that's a cool Dhs1.2 million loaded on the monthly payroll if we took just the strikers into consideration. But ArabTec employs 52,000 people according to its website. So that'd be around Dhs 10 million in extras every month.

Of course, quite apart from the massive cost, a wage increase now would also be seen to be rewarding the strike action. I can't see it happening, somehow - whether we, from the comfort of our armchairs, would like it to or not.
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