UAE: Arabtec striking workers to be deported


On Wednesday, thousands of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi construction workers were forced to end a strike they began last Sunday over pay increase.

Now many are risking deportation.

The UAE Ministry of Labour sent the police to the labour camp of Jebel Ali, where the workers decided to stay, refusing to take the company’s buses and go to work.

They demanded a 350 UAE dirham (92 US dollars) monthly food allowance to be paid with their salaries, rather than the three daily meals provided by the company.

Their salaries go from 650 to 1,200 UAE dirham a month (from 177 to 327 US dollars) for a 12-hour day, six days a week.

“They are upset at the low wages and also about not being paid for overtime work,” one employee told the Reuters news agency.

“The protest started in Abu Dhabi on Saturday ... workers in Dubai have also joined,” the employee said.

The company refused any negotiation, and the Ministry of Labour sent the police to the labour camp along with some officers, according to local newspapers.

Arabtec said that all workers returned to work with no impact on any of its projects.

The UAE leading construction company built Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper (830 m) and has won a 654-million US dollars contract to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi art gallery, set to open in 2015.

“This unwarranted stoppage had been instigated by a minority group who will be held accountable for their actions,” said the company in a statement, claiming that the issue was “resolved amicably” with cooperation from the labour ministry, police and other official authorities.

In reality, workers were just as intimidated as usual.

“The police told us to go back and we did. What can we do if they don’t give us an increase?” a Bangladeshi worker told the UAE daily The National.

"Between 20-25 people just got the [deportation] letter now," Ashraf, a scaffolding installer at Arabtec, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday after receiving a phone call from a co-worker.

"When we got the news of the [first] deportations [on Monday], everyone came down shouting. When the police came, we just went back to our rooms. People were trying to be part of the group without coming to the front," he said.

In the United Arab Emirates, freedom of association is denied and strikes are banned, just like in most of the other oil-rich Gulf countries: Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Trade unions are not allowed, there is no right to collective bargaining, nor a minimum wage set by the government.

This happens in a country where migrant workers make up 90 per cent of the labour force. They have an average yearly income of 3,000 US dollars, while the Arab natives’ estimated GDP per capita is 37,000 US dollars, which makes the UAE one of the richest economies in the world.


Suicides and mass deportations

In such an unequal and segregating society, workers from poor South-Asian countries have no means to claim for and obtain better conditions. Not surprisingly, many decide to commit suicide, also at Arabtec.

In May 2011, Athiraman Kannan, a 38-year-old Indian labourer, who had been in the Gulf for 10 years and lived at the Jebel Ali work camp, jumped from the 147th floor of the Burj Khalifa.

He had told his workmates that he would have to return home to the south of India to resolve a family matter after the death of his brother.

But Arabtec refused permission, information that the company was quick to deny immediately after his death.

Those who dare to fight back against this blatant exploitation are often repatriated.

There have been various protest actions to obtain higher wages in the last six years, but Arabtec’s management always threatened mass expulsions.

The most famous dates back to November 2007, when more than 30,000 migrants downed tools for 10 days.

They were asking for an increase of 20 per cent in their wages, which they got in the end but at the cost of many being repatriated.

The last strike at Arabtec was in January 2011, when about 5,000 workers stopped work for two weeks.

The demand was for another 50 US dollars a month and the cost of a return journey to their country to be covered.

Many also complained about not being paid for overtime.

But there was no negotiation, and 71 Bangladeshis were accused of instigating a revolt in the company camp.

They were all arrested and taken away.