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Sat 17 Feb 2007 12:00 AM

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Supporting role: how to keep your labour force in the lead

With a dedicated counselling team in place, Jane Carter, HR manager, Al Futtaim Carillion outlines how the company is keeping its 12,500-strong workforce onside.

Al Futtaim Carillion has been working on an employee relations strategy for its labourers for some time now, what does that involve?

We set up ‘camp nurse’ meetings to help labourers deal with some of the challenges they face.

One of the things that involves is a hospital visit scheme. When labourers are in hospital we have a number of people who go and visit them, and not purely on a work-related basis. We provide them with a support network and consult with their doctors over treatment. The doctors were initially surprised at this approach, but we felt that taking on the parental responsibility was the right thing to do, regardless of the labourer’s age.

We’re also in the process of rolling out a labour action group, whereby meetings are held at the labour camps each month during which workers can raise any issues they may have. After all the information has been collated, it is brought to the table of a group of senior people, who are able to make decisions around the issues that were raised and prioritise actions – that is then fed back to the labourers in eight different languages.

What kind of issues arise in these meetings?

Labourers may have family problems at home and sometimes need support in dealing with them. We’ll let them go home if they need to.

There is a balance between being too accommodating – you have to determine whether the issue is genuine, and if going home is the appropriate thing to do, or if you can find other ways of dealing with it, which is where counselling comes in.

Also, if a labourer is sick and there’s confidence that they’ll get better treatment at home, then we allow them on leave.

And if a labourer stays in Dubai and has long-term health problems and needs time off, we still pay them.

How does your counselling system work?

We get typical problems that we can provide an ear for but might not be able to do a great deal about, such as debt problems.

We also get labourers suffering from depression, and the first port of call is counselling, through Rinku Bhatia, one of out HR business partners, who deals with welfare issues because of her language capability. And they can relate to her – everybody knows who she is and they have confidence in her.

Rinku aligns with the health and safety officer, who also has the linguistic capability, and they will try and understand the issues the labourer has. Sometimes they put them in touch with their family, who they may not have spoken to in a while because of the cost of calling home. They will also talk to family members to find out if there’s a history that we need to consider. If we need to get external assistance then we do that as well.

With depression being a difficult thing to tackle, how does the company deal with that in order to maintain productivity on site as well?

We’ve had different levels of depression, from people who are perhaps finding it difficult to adjust to living in this part of the world, or those who suffer from stress, perhaps due to debt.

Where it is a case of stress at the early stages, we try to find out what the problem is and help find solutions. We have found that being empathetic, and providing labourers with an opportunity to be open, to be very effective.

Where we have more extreme cases of depression we will invariably get medical support, and we will engage with their family as well.

We had an extreme case of depression where we got the labourer to a point where he was fit enough to travel, and his parents wanted him to go home.

We provided him with someone to visit him everyday until he went home, along with additional financial support in recognition of the fact that he invested a lot in coming over here.

It’s a matter of putting a very strong message out that the company does care, and if there’s anything we can do, we will do it.

Do you ever come across alcohol problems among labourers?

Alcohol issues are a problem for every organisation that employs a labour force such as ours. Our security takes measures to make sure alcohol doesn’t get onto sites. Obviously we can’t control labourers’ lives outside the camp, but we can ensure we have a sufficient mechanism in place to stop alcohol getting into the camp.

We deal with the situation as soon as we find out about any alcohol abuse. If it comes to our attention through counselling, for example, that we have somebody with alcohol dependency, then we treat it as an illness, rather than a conduct issue.

And if we can help the individual to remove that level of dependency, then we do, if we can’t, then we help them settle back into their life back home.

Have you ever come up against strikes over pay and conditions?

No. We’re known as a company that always pay our staff on time. We had a fire at our head office about a year ago and it was coming up to pay day. Our computer systems went down but we still managed to mobilise into a temporary building and pay our labourers on time. That’s one of the things that makes people want to come and work for us. It would be a very sad day if, after 30 years of trading in the UAE, we ever had that problem.

With the programme you have in place for labourers, can you see an obvious impact on the way they work and their motivation?

It’s early days to see if it has had an impact on the projects, although I’m sure it has. But where it has had an impact is that the labourers know we’re here. I’ve had feedback from some, like the drivers, who have said the labourers are happier now they’ve got people who are taking care of them. That was one of the reasons we extended the people-related functions in the company, and one of the reasons we decided to keep HR separate from personnel, so that we could concentrate on welfare issues rather than the day-to-day administration of an employment relationship.

Do you think this could encourage more companies to follow a similar plan?

I hope so. Labourers are now in a position where they have choices. It isn’t an employer’s market over here anymore – the labourers can now decide whether they want to stay at home and work, and stay with their families. It would be a very shortsighted employer who doesn’t think about the welfare of not only their senior employees, but of the labourers who are actually building the projects.

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