Arabtec CEO hits back over BBC's labour camp claims

EXCLUSIVE: Company chief says TV show on plight of construction workers was 'unfair'.
By Tom Arnold
Wed 08 Apr 2009 04:15 PM

Arabtec Holding chief executive Riad Kamal on Wednesday hit back at a documentary by the BBC’s Panorama show which claimed the firm’s labour camps were filthy and overcrowded.

In a strong response to the findings of the programme, Kamal accused Panorama of being unfair in its reporting of the living and working conditions of workers of Arabtec Construction, a subsidiary of Arabtec Holding.

Arabtec, one of the largest contractors in the UAE which employs a total of 62,000 people, had more than 20 camps in Dubai and Abu Dhabi which were cleaned daily, Kamal told Arabian Business in an exclusive interview.

He said the company also employed a hygiene specialist who headed a team that trained workers about the importance of basic hygiene and nutrition.

Cameras for the current affairs TV programme, which aired in the UK this week, filmed overflowing raw sewage leaking through one Arabtec camp.

One worker complained the toilets were so filthy they were unusable and about garbage and water blocking the roads around the camp.

“They have been very unfair not only to Arabtec but to Dubai,” said Kamal, who said he had not seen the programme but had read a BBC press release about the documentary’s findings.

“Our camps are cleaned every day and our septic tanks are pumped out continuously. We have an enormous number of tankers working 24 hours emptying sewage from our tanks.

“I am not sure when and where they (Panorama) went into any of our camps. It may be that during the rainy season some of the tanks overflowed, but this is not the norm.”

He said supervisors ensured toilets in the camps were cleaned every day but the company had no control over when they were used.

Kamal said many of the workers came from poor backgrounds and their standard of cleanliness was not as high as the firm would like.

He firmly rejected allegations of overcrowding in rooms in the camps, claiming a maximum of six workers lived in each room.

All rooms were well ventilated and rooms where the men slept were air-conditioned and had sufficient windows, he said.

The camps provided “excellent” cooking facilities for the workers, with a medical team of nurses and a doctor looking after their medical needs. If workers were found to be unfit they were referred to a medical clinic, he said.

All labourers were covered by an insurance scheme, he added.

“We are providing facilities for the men compatible with their expectations and directions we have been given by Dubai Municipality,” he said.

He said a claim by the programme that workers were earning between $120 and $140 per month for ten to 12 hours work a day was untrue.

He said the BBC had not checked with Arabtec wage levels of workers.

He said the basic monthly wage of an unskilled labourer based on an eight-hour day (six days a week) started at $177, with skilled workers' wages starting at $225.

Depending on the amount of overtime done by workers, the average take-home wage for an unskilled labourer was $225 a month, with a skilled labourer taking home about $277 a month, he said. Overtime work, which averages two hours a day, was paid at 25 percent higher than the basic wage, in accordance with industry standards.

“I would have expected a respectable media party to come and sit with us and clear the figures before publishing wrong figures.

“We are the largest construction company in the UAE and these wages are a measure of what construction labour across the industry is getting paid,” he said.

All the major contractors in the UAE, together with the Contractors’ Association, and the Ministry of Labour had agreed a couple of years ago what wage increases should be given to workers, he said.

Arabtec had no control over how much workers paid to recruitment companies in their home countries to come and work in the UAE, but issued instructions to recruiters not to exceed their costs plus a minimum charge, he said.

“A lot of the workers have paid over the top to their recruitment firms to come here,” Kamal admitted.

But he said workers would be able to repay the costs incurred within two to three months of work in the UAE.

He said Arabtec kept labourers’ passports for “security” reasons but that they were able to regain their passport and leave the UAE whenever they chose.

He said some Arabtec workers had been working for the firm for 10-15 years.

Meanwhile, the UAE's Ministry of Labour has said it will investigatethe documentary's claims.

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