The GCC’s Expatriate Workers Rights

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) published on Wednesday, 22 July 2015 a report titled ‘Modern Slavery: The Dark Side of Construction’ in which it holds the “New York University (NYU) campus project in Abu Dhabi is a salutary lesson of how a client can fail to protect workers’ rights, despite setting out with the best intentions”.

“Recognising the difficult working conditions and abusive labour practices that labourers often encounter in the region, NYU published a set of fair employment guidelines before construction work began on site, also implementing a compliance monitoring regime,” the report said.

NYU intended with the use of these guidelines was to ensure that all project’s related 30,000 workers engaged in the construction programme were protected against employment misdeeds but unfortunately “But the university campus quickly began to attract negative and damaging headlines.”

That is how one of the Middle East construction sector’s largest news stories for July 2015 came all the way from New York City, USA and the world knew all about up to 10,000 workers “were ultimately not protected by the guidelines” put in place by developer NYU to protect labour rights in the first place.

Amongst the accusations laid some time ago in The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times, in articles, as well as in NGOs reports, there were about those workers illegally paying recruitment fees and earning lower than agreed wages.  Reports added that these were living in poor quality accommodation and that there were “Workers had also been forced to give up their passports to their employer, in contravention of NYU guidelines.”

CIOB’s report highlights a fact known to all close to the business that “a major source of the problem was not the guidelines themselves… but that the contractors and monitors were redefining who would fall within their parameters” and that guideline, as it were, exemptions “had been introduced to a narrow group of workers whose involvement in the project was more peripheral, such as vendors delivering goods to site”.

There was obviously lack of clarity on how the exemptions should be interpreted and consequently applied.

Apart from that, it is believed that the most prevalent violations of the guidelines, as per experts and non-experts alike reckoning, were fee and / or salary payment problems.  “NYU has since pledged to reimburse workers’ recruitment fees”, CIOB’s report added.  How and on what basis, would certainly be not difficult to surmount but it remains that salary payments though, have been a long-running concern for the region’s construction industry.

Fortunately for labourers, governments, local authorities and all related agencies, recently made aware of it have recognised payment delays as a constant failure and a lot was left to be done with respect to improving this aspect of the development business.

Some positive instances were somehow brought to cause precedence; thus in May 2015, Dubai Police helped labourers recover some unpaid wages of 15 months arrears.  The number of strikes by workers thereafter and for reasons notably of pay disputes are decreasing in the UAE but are still prevailing in Qatar.

Qatar where workers treatment in the country’s construction sites continue to attract immense scrutiny and criticism from around the world.  Foreigners who are currently employed in Qatar can shift jobs only if they obtain prior permission from their sponsor, and the government is considering an amendment which will allow them to change jobs after their contract has finished, or after five years of open contract employment.

Like its GCC neighbours UAE and Saudi Arabia, Qatar has also implemented restricted outdoor working hours during summer between 15 June and 31 August.

Qatar’s Labour Law details fairly well this area of site works situations but stay away from the crux of the matter.  That is of the sponsorship’s legislation where the local policy making elite seem to be dragging its feet.  Vested interests obliging of either the 2022 World Cup and / or that of the hundreds of thousands of free roaming foreign workers residence yearly renewal fees.

Region-wide standardisation of labour laws is a distinct possibility in the longer term.  Until then, however, the onus lies on contractors to ensure that worker rights are protected.

For more details, see CIOB’s PDF Report at