In a move conducive to the wider process of reforming labour regulations, Abu Dhabi's Ministry of Labour announced that it plans to clamp down on construction recruitment agencies in a bid to strengthen the position of labourers in the UAE.
In future, all labourers seeking employment in the UAE will have to apply through the Ministry of Labour rather than gaining work directly through recruitment agents. The minister of labour, Ali Bin Abdullah al-Ka'abi, denounced such agencies, telling local media on July 8, "All labour agencies, foreign and UAE alike, are corrupt and operate like the mafia, and must be eliminated."
Al-Ka'abi is planning a tour of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines after Ramadan, expected September 24-October 23, to address this issue. He hopes that labour exchange agreements may be signed with these countries making the recruitment agent redundant in the UAE's foreign worker hiring process.
There are about 170 recruitment agencies that are currently licensed by the ministry. The ministry also records that there were 2,738,000 expatriate workers in the UAE in 2005, a 17% increase on 2004.
Alex Schweininger von Ary, head of the recruitment and consultancy agency Wadi Jobs, told OBG that there are two types of recruitment in the UAE, one legitimate the other unscrupulous. He explained, "There is a misunderstanding in terms of recruitment in the Middle East. I have been approached many times by people who are seeking employment to give them a job and later be subcontracted to do various other jobs. This is not what we do or what recruitment is defined as in the Western world. We source candidates and oversee the whole recruitment process from introduction through to the day they start with the prospective employer."
The new labour measures come at a time when the ministry is implementing other means to clamp down on companies that contravene labour regulations and undermine labourers' rights. The Ministry of Labour is set to increase its number of inspectors from 100 to 650 at the federal level in an attempt to enforce labour regulations more extensively and efficiently.
The ministry is currently promoting and implementing the noon break, which forbids contracting labourers from working between 12.30 pm and 3.00 pm during the peak summer months of July and August. Qaseem Jameel, head of the Inspection Department at the Ministry of Labour, told the Khaleej Times, "The inspectors discovered over the campaign's first week that 68 firms had flouted the rule. We checked on more than 700 locations through the first week of the campaign, which will continue till the end of August."
In accordance with Ministerial Decision No. 410 of 2006, the penalties for first time offenders include being moved to category C under which no work permits or visas will be granted to the company for a minimum of 3 months. Alternatively, the offending company can pay a fine of Dh10,000 ($2700).
The Ministry of Labour is keen to promote the importance of the noon break and conducted a workshop at the Armed Forces Officers Club on Sunday to launch and highlight the campaign. The only construction activities that are exempted from the regulation are those providing emergency public infrastructure repair, such as those pertaining to breakdowns in water supply or power failures.
The ministry's pro-active approach to enforcing labour regulations can also be seen in efforts to make companies adhere to minimum standards of housing provision for workers. Rako Co., a local general contracting company, has had its transactions suspended until it improves the housing conditions of its workers. The Ministry of Labour has suspended its requests for visas and work permits until the situation is remedied.
The inspector for the Ministry of Labour, Ahmed al-Wahedi, told the Khaleej Times, "We have visited the company three times before, and there is no response to our remarks on the breaches of the housing conditions. So, according to the Articles No. 4 and 6 in the Ministerial Decision No. 410 for 2006, the ministry will penalise the company after it was given three times grace periods to set up new accommodation for its workers." Such inspections extend to monitoring wages as well as occupational health and safety.
Meanwhile, the ministry is keen to formalise the provisions for rights to protest in the UAE. According to al-Ka'abi, labourers are allowed to protest over poor living conditions, unpaid wages and lack of provision for safety considerations. The minister was keen to note the value of the expatriate labour force but added, "Workers who protest for reasons that do not fall into these categories are violating the law and are jeopardising their stay in the country." However, al-Ka'abi stressed that such disquiet amongst expatriate workers is rare. He told Gulf News, "The protest rate is only 0.04% as there are only some 30 companies out of 250,000 that have problems with their workers."
Such attention to labour regulations is a precursor to new labour laws, which are anticipated towards the end of this year. Al-Ka'abi told the Gulf News that such a law would provide for the right to peaceful assembly amongst workers as well as the right to form trade unions.
The law is currently in the drafting process with four teams from the Ministry of Labour charged with researching the best labour regulations and practices from around the world. This taskforce will investigate a wide range of labour issues including working hours and wages, labour inspection and occupational health, employment of women, management of foreign labour and finally training and productivity. The teams are expected to report back to the undersecretary at the Ministry of Labour, Khalid al-Khazraji, with their final conclusions by mid-August.
With the tightening of regulations and the anticipated introduction of a new labour law, the provisioning of foreign labourers is continuing apace. Such moves signal a drive towards efficiency and transparency within the labour market, which bodes well for the future productivity of the UAE.