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Sat 20 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

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Time of the essence

With the five-day week back on the agenda, we look at the problems a shorter working week brings with it.

Working long hours comes with the territory in the construction industry.

With sites operating around-the-clock in an attempt to finish projects at record speed, putting in the overtime is an unavoidable part of the job.

The big companies might be able to afford it, but medium and small-sized ones won’t.

And for most contractors in the Gulf, the heavy workload means that the luxury of having two days off at the weekend is something that can only be dreamt about.

The long-practiced six-day working week is prevalent in the industry across the region, but it is a practice that is coming under increasing scrutiny. As contractors battle with mounting staff shortages, many say the problem is being compounded as employees unhappy with tough working hours, jump ship to project management or consultancy firms -lured by the prospect of a five-day week and a better lifestyle.

So much so, many contractors are beginning to assess the possibility of switching to a five-day week in the hope that it would help with staff retention, as well as boost morale and productivity.

But in an environment of intense competition and struggle to meet deadlines, will anyone really dare to take the plunge and reduce staff working hours?

According to Steve McConnachie, general manager, Al Masaood Bergum, longer breaks have helped increase output.

While he admits that scaling down to a five-day week would be tough, the company has taken steps to ensure its staff have more time off.

"We sent a questionnaire out and asked people which hours they wanted to work; within reason. We gave them choices that wouldn't be to the detriment of the business," he said.

"So now we operate a rota system to do a five-and-a-half-day week as opposed to a six-day week. We found that working the same hours for a five-day week, every other week, gave a 17% increase in output. And then the half-day we have every other week is like a casual day."

The government of Dubai is currently considering an amendment to the labour law, which would enforce a two-day weekend in the private sector, bringing standards more in line with international norms.
A mandatory five-day week is a prospect that no doubt many in the industry would welcome. But it is also one that has prompted fierce debate, with some arguing that a shorter working week in the current climate would be totally unworkable.

"I can give you a thousand reasons why, if the government introduces a five-day working week, it would be a disaster in this country," said Saeed Massoudi, managing director, Al Ahmadiah Contracting & Trading.

"If you take the general practice, with 90% of the jobs given to any contractor, they squeeze you so much that makes it impossible to even work just five days - if you don't do night shifts, you will never complete the job in time. What would happen is simple - you will have to bring additional people in for the extra two days."

Massoudi adds that while some European countries such as France have purposefully introduced laws to shorten the working week in a bid to lower unemployment levels, similar regulations in this region - where demand for labour is at such a peak - could have disastrous consequences. "When they shortened the working week in Europe, they wanted to create more jobs," said Massoudi. "Whereas here, you don't want to create more jobs. You are short of people.

"Operating a shorter week will create more problems - it will mean building more labour camps and putting more buses on the roads. If you had five million people unemployed here then yes, it might help, but where does this workforce come from? Not from the nationals, it has to be imported."

It is inevitable that a five-day week would also result in increased construction costs across the board.

"If a working day becomes a holiday, companies are going to have to pay people overtime to work, which means paying them double the normal time, which is going to be an additional cost to the them," said Dr Imad Al Jamal, vice president, higher technical consultative committee, UAE Contractors Association.

"The big companies might be able to afford it with high margins, but medium and small-sized ones won't. Some of the smaller construction firms are working 24/7, and are just about surviving - what will be the impact and cost of these actions on them? I don't think it will work."

There is general sceptism that, given the intense pressure the entire industry is under to complete projects on time, such a regulation will ever be enforced.

And if it does come into play, the construction industry may even be excluded. "Introducing it to sites would be tremendously difficult, they wouldn't be able to do it because it's incredibly difficult to do jobs within deadlines," said Anton du Plooy, HR manager, Al Jaber Services.

"If you did enforce it across sites, profitability could generally go down as you would either lose money on penalties, or would have to invest more money in overtime.

"I would support such a government initiative in general, but certainly not to be enforced across the board, and I don't see it happening soon because it would affect the finances of too many companies," he added.

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