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Sat 23 Dec 2006 04:00 AM

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Improving worker conditions

The next twelve months will show us if the UAE construction industry can adopt a more humane attitude towards its human resources.

Now that 2006 is almost over, it’s time to take a look back at what has happened in the industry over the previous twelve months. For the staff of
Construction Week

newspaper, the issue of worker welfare has undoubtedly been the biggest and most important topic of 2006.

The year began with a raft of worker action. Almost everyone who works in the Internet City and Jebel Ali areas probably remembers the day when protesting workers brought Sheikh Zayed Road to a standstill.

There have been countless sit-down demonstrations outside consular premises. On one occastion, there were even reports of on-site rampages involving aggrieved workers.

As a result of these incidents and the ongoing boom in Dubai’s construction sector, there have been many calls to improve the situation of construction workers. But have things really got better for them?

After all, no amount of debate can make an employer physically deliver a monthly pay cheque on time, or even at all. The same thing goes for conditions in worker accommodation and on-site health and safety. December 14’s tragic Dubai bus crash is a terrible reminder that construction workers remain amongst the most vulnerable people in society.

For the UAE, a recent order from its Prime Minister is a sign that there is a serious intention at the highest level to improve the lot of workers. HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has ordered the Ministry of Labour to bring in health insurance for construction workers, streamline worker grievance procedures and dramatically increase the size of its inspection team.

Government legislation will undoubtedly help to improve the situation, but worker conditions will only really improve when their employers change their attitude towards them. Rather than treating them as a commodity, employers have to understand that construction workers deserve to be paid on time, live in decent conditions and have the right to air their grievances. The next twelve months will show us if the industry can learn to adopt a more ethical and humane attitude towards its human resources.