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Mon 22 Oct 2007 10:24 AM

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Six-year expat cap gets UAE backing

Proposal to limit how long unskilled workers can live in Gulf top of the agenda, says labour minister.

Plans that could see millions of people forced out of the Gulf under a six-year residency cap for unskilled workers took a step closer on Monday when the UAE labour minister said the Emirates will back the proposal.

Speaking in the run-up to a meeting of GCC labour ministers in Riyadh next month, Ali Bin Abdullah Al Ka'abi said the issue will be top of the agenda.

“The cap of three years, renewable for another three years, will be applicable to unskilled labourers working in GCC countries, and will help tackle the demographic imbalance in this region,” Al Ka'abi said, quoted UAE daily Gulf News.

The proposed cap was first announced by Bahrain Labour Minister Majeed Al-Alawi at the beginning of this month and will be discussed at the upcoming GCC Summit in Doha at the end of the year.

Al-Alawi's initial comments suggested that the proposals will cover all expatriates working in the Gulf, but the minister has since clarified his stance, stating that the cap will only apply to non-professional and semi-skilled labourers. It is still unclear as to who exactly will be included in these categories.

Al-Alawi said at the time the cap was necessary to stop the erosion of local culture and to stem soaring unemployment among nationals.

His remarks have sparked a firestorm, with expatriates from across the Gulf accusing the minister's plans of being shortsighted and misguided and claiming the move could have dire consequences for the region's economies.

Despite the move to limit the cap to non-professionals, the proposal will still have serious consequences for many of the 13 million or so expatriates living in the GCC if it is passed at the GCC summit.

The six countries that make up the GCC - the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait - are hugely dependent on foreign workers to drive their booming economies, the vast majority of which are unskilled workers.

According to statistics quoted by newswire AFP, there are around 35 million people living in the GCC, of whom 37% are foreign workers.

Al Ka'abi did say that the cap will be applied to each Gulf state separately, meaning that workers could continue to work in the GCC after six years, just not in the same country.

“However, the cap would be applied in each country separately, so workers can work in other GCC countries after completing six years in one country,” he added.

However, this may come as little comfort for the millions of Indians, Pakistanis and the Filipinos - which make up the vast majority of unskilled workers - that have lived in places in Dubai for years and now consider it their home.

Al Ka'abi stressed the need to enrich national dialogue about the labour issue and to fix the demographic imbalance by reconsidering legislative, executive and regulatory frameworks of the UAE labour market, according to state news agency Wam.

"The UAE is currently spearheading efforts of the labour importing countries to make international conventions on labour rights more responsive to the new realities, including the fact that guest workers in labour receiving countries are temporary residents," Al Ka’abi said, quoted Wam.

He added that the joint forum of the labour exporting and importing countries - to be held in Abu Dhabi in January - will seek to develop a scenario for ensuring rights of foreign workers.

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