ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Laborers gathered Wednesday for an event aimed at showcasing how the United Arab Emirates is trying to make labor laws more understandable instead discussed unscrupulous bosses, abuses and poor conditions rampant across the Gulf Arab states.
Wearing handed-out white baseball caps reading "I (heart) UAE," laborers praised the Emirati effort at translating labor laws while still complaining about stagnant wages and being suckered by agents into jobs they didn't want.
"The companies are gaining. They are making all the profits. What about the laborers?" asked Adnan Chaudhry, 30, of Pakistan, who works in human resources at a copper manufacturing plant. "The managers are up, up, up and the laborers are down, down, down."
Gulf nations long have relied on migrant labor to build their oil-funded skylines, drive their taxi cabs and clean their hotel rooms. In the UAE, a federation of seven emirates on the Arabian Peninsula, foreign workers vastly outnumber locals.
In recent years, however, the conditions workers face has gained particular attention ahead of Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. An Amnesty International report last week alleged migrant laborers faced abuse that in some cases amounted to forced labor while working on one stadium that will host the tournament.
On Wednesday, Emirati officials gathered before several hundred workers at what appeared to be a model residential camp for laborers and managers on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital. They answered a series of questions from workers as Saqr Ghobash, the UAE's minister of human resources and emiratization, moved through the crowd, trailed by television cameras.
But even here, with security guards holding trays full of expensive chocolates, taxi drivers discussed how their housing didn't allow them to cook meals. Others talked about being in small rooms split in two, with 10 men sleeping inside at a time. An apprentice taxi driver said he had his pay docked any time he did poorly on an exam.
'I'm not happy," said the taxi driver from Nigeria's southern Edo state, who asked his name not be used for fear of losing his job. "I wish I never came."
Gulf Arab nations have come under increasing scrutiny from human rights and labor activists over their treatment of low-paid workers. Labor unions are not allowed and strikes are illegal in the UAE, though protests sometimes occur. Hundreds of migrant laborers staged a rare protest in November near the airport hosting the opening day of the biennial Dubai Airshow.
Habib Rehman, a Pakistani who works in human resources for a construction firm, said he appreciated the effort to translate labor laws into languages like Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Urdu, but said a wider campaign was needed to educate all workers. Also, even laborers who know their rights sometimes face bosses who threaten to ban them from the UAE, he said.
"There are people in between who have been misusing" the laws, Rehman said. "They put them under pressure, blackmailing them."
Ali Ebrahim al-Shehhi, a senior administrator at the Dubai labor office who attended Wednesday's meeting, answered several of Rehman's questions, stressing workers should document what they see and never sign a paper they don't understand.
However, when pressed by Rehman about bosses and company heads knowingly breaking the law, he said Emirati authorities wouldn't allow it.
"The world has changed," al-Shehhi said. "You have to change your mentality."
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