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Sat 2 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Progress down a long road

The UAE's construction sector is already on the brink on crisis, and shouldn't be brought down by labour disputes.

Progress down a long road

In the early 1970s almost every industry in the UK was racked with labour disputes, with some industries collapsing entirely as a result of countless protests by a disgruntled workforce.

The troubles peaked in the winter of 1973/74, a period which became famously known as ‘the winter of discontent'.

Much of the discontent came from those employed in low-paid public sector jobs or in manufacturing.

The UAE was hit by a crisis not too far removed from this in the summer of 2006. Although unrest among construction workers had been rumbling beneath the surface for some time, the situation reached a head when 8,500 Besix workers staged a coordinated strike that lasted almost a week.

The strike brought major projects to a standstill and attracted the attention of the world's media and, more pertinently, Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW's first report on the mistreatment of construction workers in the UAE was largely based on the accounts of strikes and conditions in labour camps recorded by the local press.

In a rare interview with Construction Week, the UAE minister of labour, Ali Abdulla Al Kaabi, questioned the research methodology used.

He also said that it was unfair to paint a negative picture of the situation based on interviews with a sample of just 60 illegal workers. Regardless of how much groundwork went into the report, its publication made a huge impact.

In the space of a few years, Al Kaabi has enforced radical changes, within his ministry and outside.

Salaries are now paid into bank accounts, labour accommodation is being improved and compulsory health insurance will soon be in place.

The ministry is also getting to the root of the cause of many workers' misery - the agencies that hire them in their home country. But there is still a long way to go.

The UK's construction industry is experiencing similar problems, as is China's.

But the difference is the building projects in those countries are pretty mundane compared with what's going on here and will not attract as much attention.

The UAE's construction sector is already on the brink of crisis because of stifling costs, and shouldn't be brought down entirely by labour disputes and the reports that follow.

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