Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More about Happiness Island

IN my last posting about Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island project, I referred to the "blood, sweat and tears" of building workers. I wasn't exaggerating of course. Safety, or the lack of it, at work, and especially in the construction industry, is an international issue.

In its report on the conditions of migrant building workers, Human Rights Watch says it was unable to determine how many workers, if any, have died from work-related accidents on Saadiyat Island. "No public figures are available. In response to a written question from Human Rights Watch asking whether it collected or would make public figures on how many workers had died on the island, TDIC (Tourism, Investment and Development Corporation) stated that it required its contractors to "prepare and submit monthly progress reports which includes safety statistics and details of hazardous incidents and activities," but it did not provide us with any figures or state whether it would make such figures available.

The head of the Emergency Department at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi said that from 350 to 400 foreign construction workers presented daily to the hospital or its community-based clinic in Khalifa City (also in Abu Dhabi emirate). (Most construction workers with serious injuries in Abu Dhabi city would likely report to that hospital, he added, because it was the only hospital serviced by public ambulances and capable of doing all types of surgery.) Work-related injuries included "pieces of cement and steel chips in their eyes," "hand injuries from grinders or power tools," and falls. "Most of what we see is avoidable," he said. "Workers need more eye care, and more education." Numbers of heat-related cases presenting at the hospital had declined since 2005, when the UAE imposed a ban on work from 12:30 to 3:00 pm during the months of July and August. Human Rights Watch interviewed the hospital official in the presence of an official from the Abu Dhabi ministry of health.

"The Bangladesh Embassy in Abu Dhabi estimated that it repatriated the bodies of eight to ten construction workers per month; on average, three were work-related deaths; one was a suicide; one a murder; and the rest were car accidents. Officials at the Embassy of Pakistan offered to provide statistics on worker deaths during a meeting with Human Rights Watch but did not respond to further inquiries. The Embassy of India refused to meet with Human Rights Watch, despite repeated requests.

"Volunteers with an NGO that advocates for the rights of construction workers said the NGO received 10 to 15 notifications of "serious" injuries among foreign construction workers per day. Additionally, the NGO confirmed an average of three suicides per week among foreign construction workers in the UAE, because the workers could not pay their debts. The volunteer said that the families of workers who die on the job faced a series of difficulties, including receiving the compensation due to them by law:

Your family gets more compensation money if you die in a road accident than if you die on the job. Usually compensation for workplace death ranges from 18,000 dirhams to a maximum of 35,000, whatever is equivalent to two years' salary. But the problem is that if someone dies, their body is repatriated, and there's no one left here to follow up and get them the compensation. The lawyers here can charge up to 40 or 50 per cent of the settlement once they get the power of attorney from the deceased's family, whom they track down back in India. We need a social security fund here, like there is in Bahrain.

In 2006, Human Rights Watch found that national UAE figures of workplace deaths among migrant construction workers appeared to indicate a severe under-reporting problem. Construction Week reported that over 880 construction workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had died in the UAE that year, with up to 30 percent of the deaths caused by worksite accidents. That year, 292 Indian construction workers died in Dubai and the northern emirates and 168 in Abu Dhabi, according to Construction Week's research. In contrast, the only municipality to report any official figures at all, Dubai, recorded only 34 deaths of construction workers of all nationalities at their workplaces in 2004 and 39 deaths in 2005.

Under UAE law, Ministry of Labor inspectors are to ensure that employers comply with safety and health regulations. However, the Ministry employs only 425 inspectors to oversee, according to its 2007 figures, over 260,000 businesses employing a total of 3,113,000 foreign workers. A Pakistani man, now working for Zueblin on Saadiyat Island, said, "I've been in the UAE for six years and have never seen a government inspection of anything." Four other Zueblin workers, from Rajasthan, India, said they had been working in the UAE for seven years and had never seen a government inspector at work site or camp.

The owner of a construction company in Dubai told Human Rights Watch that in his experience, although the Dubai Municipality appeared to be inspecting labor accommodations regularly, there was inadequate enforcement of legal standards for health and safety.

We're still building our labor accommodations so in the interim we've rented places [for our workers] at someone else's camp. We had looked at the camp; it looked OK. But after renting for a couple months, our [workers] were complaining that the camp was in bad shape, and we realized they weren't staying where the landlord told us they were staying. So we contacted the Dubai Municipality to ask about the site, and we got a letter from them saying, "these are the violations." So we saw the inspections had been fairly regular and had noted violations. We saw that the landlords had been fined, but the problem is that despite the fines, there was nothing to make them improve conditions. The inspection reports I got were a month apart, so there was frequency; and the first time [the landlord] got fined 13,000 dirhams, but when the same violations persisted, they didn't fine them the second time. It seems people will do just barely enough to keep from getting fined without actually solving any problems.

The federal government's failure to hire an adequate number of labour inspectors, to publicly report occupational accidents and injuries, and to enforce relevant laws continue despite promises of reform dating back several years. In November 2005, the under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour admitted to the media that the government had no comprehensive data about numbers, causes of death or injury, or about the identity of those dead or injured.

In 2006, noting that only six of 6,000 companies in Dubai reported accidents to the authorities, Human Rights Watch concluded, "The government is clearly not enforcing the [law]" requiring companies to notify the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the police of cases of death and injury of employees at work sites. On September 8, 2006, the government announced plans to increase the number of inspectors to 1,000 within the next 18 months.

On November 7, 2006, the prime minister issued a decree ordering that 2,000 more government labor inspectors be hired. The labour minister stated on March 24, 2007 that within a "few months, the number of inspectors should reach over 2,000 ... an indication of the seriousness with which the Government is tackling this task."

However, the government has failed woefully to even come close to meeting its own target. The US State Department report on human rights practices in the UAE stated that at the end of 2008, the number of health and safety inspectors employed by the Ministry of Labour stood at only 48.

There was a time when, reading about problems in less "developed" countries we might have said they were where we were in the past, and catching up. But with the British government ready to cut back already inadequate HSE inspections, as well as undermining the NHS, perhaps we can offer the workers in Abu Dhabi solidarity, but little in the way of advice.

Add the struggle to defend trade union rights and the right to strike, and what happens to workplace safety when workers are intimidated from raising issues and victimised from becoming safety reps, and the best thing we can do is recognise that we are all in the same boat.

Except, while we complain that a worker who is dead or injured at work can be "just a statistic", ignored by the media, it seems that migrant workers in some places are not even that.

It will be Workers Memorial Day on April 28, and if I have sometimes reported events marking it as though it was only happening in London, here's a notice for the day in Wolverhampton, from the website of the Wolverhampton and Bilston trades union council:

Thursday 28th April 2011

we will hold the 20th annual commemoration at 12.30pm at the Cenotaph in front of the Civic Centre and St Peters' church. WV1 1TS

Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living

More news as it comes.

It is really International Workers Memorial Day, and first started in Canada. So when we honour our comrades here let's also remember those who've died around the world, including those building palaces for the rich on Abu Dhabi's Island of Happiness.

See: Gulf labour and Guggenheim:



Response from Abu Dhabi's TIDC to Human Rights Watch report:


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