Thousands of workers employed by one of the UAE’s largest construction companies are on strike for a second day, complaining of low wages and a lack of over-time payments.
The workers are all employees of Arabtec, which helped build the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
Arabtec has a significant presence in Qatar – it’s the company behind Al Waab City and Doha’s World Trade Center.
The strike – which began in Abu Dhabi and spread to Dubai – is rare in the UAE, where labor protests are banned, and is undoubtedly being closely watched across the Gulf.
Reuters quotes an employee of the company as saying that blue-collar workers are paid between $160 and $190 a month on average.
In response, the UAE’s Labor Ministry says that the company is paying its employees the salaries promised in their contracts, adding that Arabtec is also providing accommodation, food, health insurance and transport “at least equal to their salaries.”
Right to strike
Restrictions on the forming of labor unions and strike action are common in the Gulf region.
A law change in 2004 gives Qatari citizens the right to strike, but in very limited circumstances, according to the US State Department’s report on Qatar’s Human Rights Practices 2012.
“The law provides workers in private sector enterprises that have 100 citizen workers who are 18 and older a limited right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively…”
Expats do not appear to have this right, the report continues:
“Non-citizens are not eligible to join worker committees or the national union, effectively banning foreign workers from organizing, striking, or bargaining collectively. Civil servants and domestic workers do not have the right to strike.
Restrictive conditions made the likelihood of a legal strike extremely remote. The law requires approval for a strike by three-fourths of a company’s workers committee. The Complaint Department of the Ministry of Labor in coordination with the Ministry of Interior must rule on all industrial disputes before workers can call a strike.”
These restrictions mean that official strikes are an extremely rare occurrence in Qatar. In 2005, however, 600 employees of UAE-owned company Al Khatri Building Contracting did successfully call a strike over a delay in the payment of salaries.
And in April of this year, the police and the Ministry of Labor quickly intervened when a small group of workers in Al Khor held a strike in their labor camp over salary issues, sources have told Doha News.
Qatar is getting an increasing amount of flak for its restrictions on workers from the international community, particularly since winning the right to hold the 2022 World Cup.
Late last year, the International Trade Union Confederation lodged a formal complaint with the International Labor Organization calling on Qatar to improve its treatment of migrant labor.
However, many prominent Qatari business owners are not happy with the idea of giving workers the right to organize.
Last week, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker responded to criticism from the International Transport Workers’ Federation over Qatar’s offer to move the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) from Montreal to Doha. The group suggested that the country’s ban on trade unions made this move impossible.
Al Baker told Arabian Business in response:
“If you go and ask the politicians in most of the countries in the western world they would love to have the system we have: where the workers have rights through the law but they do not have rights through striking and undermining successful institutions that provide jobs to their knees,” he added.
Credit: Photo by Stephan Geyer