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Sat 20 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

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Standards issue

Are standards in the UAE construction industry as poor in comparison to rest of the world as everyone believes?

When Dubai's construction boom took off in 2002, buoyed by the change in freehold legislation, it coincided with less than flattering comparisons with the industry internationally. Reports in the media in the UK, for example, rarely mentioned the region without a nod to the perceived construction standards or poor labour conditions.

Times have changed, however, and arguably through the presence of international contractors and consultants, the standard of construction may just have less to be apologetic for than previously thought. This begs the question, just how big is the gap between established construction markets and the Middle East? With the plethora of Australian, South African and European contractors and consultants involved in the biggest projects, is this perception a fair one?

Typically, the answer simply prompts further questions, depending, as it does, on which company is being considered and what scale of project is being discussed. Kent Southworth, contracts manager, Alec believes this to be so: "You can never really generalise, but you would find on the more prestigious projects, then definitely the quality has to be met. If you look at villas in the Springs for example, then you will see that they have not been finished very well."

Geir Jensen, general manager, Doka Gulf agrees that with the right consultants and right materials, the quality of buildings are getting better. Where there is a real gulf between the two markets is with the attitude towards safety on site, with the accepted activities on site between the Middle East region and Europe markedly different. "Sending people to a certain height without safety measures shouldn't be allowed. If you look at France nowadays, anything more than 2m high needs safety rails, guard rails and protection," says Jensen.

But tellingly, Jensen adds that it's not just a lack of real regulation as the primary cause of this perceived flaw in the construction sector. More so, it is the lack of awareness for the workforces' well being, citing the huge numbers of workers that have taken advantage of the amnesty to return to India and other countries in the sub-continent. "I am sorry to say the value of a construction worker is low. They have been here four or five years, they have survived and they have learnt. Maybe they are not skilled but they are experienced. And with this amnesty and the opportunity to go home, where their home markets are growing, why should they stay and live in a world where they don't get any respect as human beings?"

A propensity for large numbers of unskilled labourers is a natural consequence of a shortfall in skilled workers, he adds. Whereas in Europe or South Africa, there would be less labourers naturally, as the ones onsite would be skilled. And the more labourers you have, the greater the risk of accidents.

Yet this assessment ignores a further key difference between those contractors in the Middle East and Europe; one that affects all companies operating in the region regardless of their aspirations of quality and adherence to deadlines. "The challenge we have is in terms of productivity," says Kez Taylor, managing director, ALEC. "If you look at productivity in Europe per man, it is a lot higher than we get over here. I think that is what we have to look at." For instance, he adds, why should a site operating in Germany for example, using the same formwork systems, get more out of their day than those in Dubai. The answer, says Taylor, lies in training the workforce or possibly considering looking at incentives to encourage greater productivity.
So where is the shortfall in productivity stemming from? "That's a good question. What we want to do is understand why we cannot equal the European or Australian standard. If you go to a job site in Europe there will be a handful of guys working on the job. They are very mechanised, systematic and organised. What tends to happen here is that resources get thrown at it, because resource is cheap. Instead of having one person, you have five. Whereas in Europe, whether you have one or five people, the cost is such a huge factor, the guys force themselves to become hugely efficient." Cultural differences and unfamiliarity with the more sophisticated systems being employed in the Gulf is another possible reason.

"For us as a company, we lose the most money on labour productivity. If we tender a job, we say each guy will lay 50 blocks a day, but if they only manage 30 then we are losing money. If you ask all the construction companies who's making money on labour, I don't think any of them would be."

The gulf in standards does not finish at labour productivity and approaches to safety, however. There is a real belief amongst contractors that, while it is difficult to gen-eralise on key differences, the larger international companies typically follow strict codes of safety and quality. And their presence in the market has helped bring overall standards in the construction industry closer to acceptable international standards. The problem arises when you assess the smaller players in the market who may not adhere to the established regulations.

"I think what you have is a real range of world-class companies and sub-standard companies - and you can see that when you drive around," says Taylor. "You will see some contracts that are really well organised and set up, and you can see some that are disasters." It must be noted, Taylor adds, that in Europe, the authorities regulate what you can or cannot do. It isn't as if there is a choice, it is simply operated this way or the project will be shut down. In Dubai, however, it is not regulated as closely, leaving room for less reputable companies to skirt these rules.

And the disparity doesn't end with safety standards, it extends to the quality of finishes as well, which can vary throughout the city. Taylor highlights the Springs, for example, where houses aren't well constructed. "B or C grade contractors were appointed by Emaar, because they were the cheapest at face value to execute the work for them. The jobs were finished very late, the quality wasn't good, and they didn't provide the back up service that they should have.

"It depends entirely on the company, and it depends on your commitment to quality as a company," adds Southworth. Then it depends on your quality control procedures that you have in place and the quality of the sub-contractors that you use. If you choose the guy with the lowest price who is a bit of a cowboy, then you are going to get a bad job. But that is relevant in any country anyway. And I would say finishing - if you look at our finishing on the hotel (Between the Bridges project), it is equal to anything in Europe, but then if you look at the villa I am living in, I would expect it to be better."

Smaller companies aside, the general belief is that the impact of international companies has been positive on the market in the Middle East. And while there remain plenty of unanswered questions regarding quality, attitudes to labour and safety standards, there is little doubt that Dubai's construction market is unrecognisable from that at the turn of the century.

Taylor concludes: "The market is active and buoyant and I would say that with good companies that are employing cutting-edge technology here, the quality of workmanship is almost better. And they are doing jobs here that guys aren't even sniffing at in Europe."

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