The clanking of cranes, diggers and other heavy machinery is a familiar sound for anyone who has visited or lived in the UAE. On 18 May 2013, however, some of this work fell silent as workers downed tools across several major construction projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in an incident that could have wider repercussions on employers’ treatment of their labour force in the Gulf state.
Strikes — as well as workers’ unions — in the UAE are illegal, and subsequently rare. For four days though, hundreds of foreign labourers – mainly from south Asian countries including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — stayed away from work at Arabtec, Dubai’s largest listed building contractor.
The employees, mostly working on construction projects in the emirate, were reportedly seeking a pay rise of about AED200 ($54) per month. Prior to the strike, the workers were said to be receiving about $160 to $190 as their monthly salary.
Arabtec projects across both Dubai and Abu Dhabi were temporarily impacted, including Dubai’s $163m expansion of terminal two at its airport, as well as a government housing project in Al Barsha and commercial towers on Sheikh Zayed Road and in Dubai Marina.
The strike ended after four days when police entered Arabtec workers’ accommodation, according to reports.
In a statement to the Dubai Financial Market on 21 May, Arabtec said that all of its employees had returned to work after both parties had reached an “amicable solution”, however the company did not specify whether that included pay rises. Arabtec, which built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and is part-owned by the Abu Dhabi government, said that a “minority group” within the striking labourers would be “held responsible for their actions”, without specifying what it meant.*
Arabtec added that the strike had come to an end following negotiations with the country’s Ministry of Labour and Dubai Police. It said that no project delivery timelines had been impacted.
Stuart Poole-Robb, CEO of UK-based KCS Group, a security services firm which has extensive experience in the UAE and wider Gulf, said that the Arabtec strike has again raised questions regarding the treatment of labourers by their pay masters.
“What’s concerned us has been the treatment of those individuals within those sites. The lack of support facilities, the fact that they are viewed as cheap labour, and as a consequence they can be treated quite appallingly,” he tells Arabian Business.
This was by no means the first time workers in the oil-rich UAE have been involved in such disputes. About 30,000 Arabtec workers famously refused to show up for work for ten days in November 2007, with 5,000 downing tools for almost two weeks in January 2011. In both cases employees requested pay rises and complained that they had not received wages for overtime.
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