By Conrad Egbert
The construction industry is well known for its hazardous working conditions, and people are killed in site accidents every week. In the UAE, where many of the migrant labourers are paid a pittance, there are growing calls for a mandatory insurance system to be introduced to protect site workers.
Joy Joseph’s life was turned upside down one October afternoon in 2003 when he was involved in a tragic sequence of events that led to the death of a co-worker.
Held responsible for the accident, and unable to pay the ‘diya’ or blood money, he was imprisoned and only let out of jail when a Dubai-based Indian community group raised enough cash to secure his release.
His case has led to calls for a mandatory insurance system to be introduced to cover workers employed in one of the most hazardous industries.
Joseph was originally sentenced to one month in prison by a Dubai Court and ordered to pay bloody money, or ‘diya’ as it is colloquially known, worth AED200 000.
He was subsequently released on bail until 16th January 2005, when he was re-arrested and again imprisoned.
He was told he would have to remain in jail until he managed to come up with the compensation money.
Joseph claims he was wrongly imprisoned and has said the accident was caused because of faulty equipment.
He had been operating a batching plant when, unknown to him, a fellow worker had entered the mixing drum.
The victim had entered the batching plant to dislodge the lumps that tend to form due to cement drying up.
Joseph claims that a safety button that is switched on when someone enters the plant was not working, and as a result, he had no way of knowing that there was someone inside the machine when he started it.
He said: “My job at the plant was only to operate the computer. The broken safety switch that I informed the management about was ignored.
“The switch is located at the entrance of the plant and is meant to be switched on when someone enters. That sends a signal to my computer warning me that someone is inside.
“The switch wasn’t there, I didn’t get a signal, my computer flashed an ‘all safe’ message and the plant was started, resulting in the death of my colleague.”
He added: “It’s not fair that I had to pay up such a large sum of money for an accident that wasn’t my fault.
“The government needs to implement a law where every worker should be insured against accidents and work-related deaths.”
But Joseph’s former employer, the Sharjah-based Safe Mix Ready Concrete Company, has rejected the claims.
A spokesman said: “Even if he was working on our site, it was his duty to check the plant before starting it.
“He did not check it, and started it up without checking. He was supposed to give an alarm before starting the plant, and he didn’t.”
The blood money for the death of a construction worker in the UAE is AED200 000, but the average pay of a construction worker is around AED500-a-month.
This means that the average site worker held responsible for the death of a co-worker would have to save every single dirham he earned for more than 33 years, in order to pay the fine.
“I don’t think these labourers can afford to come up with this kind of money,” YK Sinha, consul general of India, told Construction Week.
“I think workers should take care that they are covered by their companies when such incidents happen on site.”
Sarachandra Bose of Dar A Adalah Advocates & Legal Consultants, said: “If a worker ends up in an accident where someone dies, unless he is insured, the blood money comes out of his pocket.
“If two people are involved in an accident and one of them dies, the family of the deceased can claim compensation from the other person only if they can prove the accident happened due to negligence.”
Joy Joseph was released from prison last week. He has returned to his home in Kerala.