Hundreds of migrant workers employed by one of Dubai’s leading development contracting companies took to the streets, demanding higher wages and overtime pay from their employer. The unusual and relatively large demonstration was the first major public display of labour discontent since Dubai was severely hit by the economic crisis.


The labourers, now working on building an extension of a shopping mall in Dubai's Deira district and a convention centre in the city's Jebel Ali Industrial zone, said their pay was insufficient to survive on and support their families back home in Southeast Asia.


The workers were earning 700 dirhams (US $190) a month and have not been paid overtime for a long time, despite working many extra hours.


The plight of migrant workers in Dubai has worsened since the global economic downturn, which has led to the cancellation or delay of dozens of development projects. Fewer workers are now needed, and rising number of them have been out of work for months. Al Habtoor is part of Al Habtoor Leighton Group, a joint venture between one of the Emirates' most prominent merchant families and Leighton Holdings, Australia's biggest construction company.


Analysis and forecast: increasing risk


The rights of expatriate workers in the UAE has been the subject of much criticism from international rights organizations and rights campaigners in the region.


Construction workers, who form the biggest segment of Dubai’s population, are typically recruited from the Indian subcontinent and sponsored for a three-year fixed period by local contractors, during which period they are unable to change employer. This makes the labour market highly controlled with very little option for the hundreds of thousands of labourers to complain. Despite government efforts to address concerns of the international community by improving labour rights, little practical steps have taken place. The sponsorship, or “kafeel” system is still in place and around it revolves the main concerns of the international community about migrant labour rights.


Protests are very rare as protestors are often rounded up and deported. However, when protests do take place, they reflect a serious and much deeper grievance. It is likely that Al Habtoor Leighton have not been able to compensate the labourers for their work, thus reflecting a weakened financial position for the contractor, partly brought about by delayed payments. Al Habtoor Leighton’s current clients include government-affiliated companies and other major developments, such as Dubai Pearl.  Delayed payments to contractors have become symptomatic of most projects in Dubai, most notably government-affiliated projects, underlying the continuing financial crisis that have now trickled down to the lowest-paid workers.


The protests also underline the inadequacy of the measures taken to protect labourers’ rights and that a more fundamental change, including a Bahrain-style scrapping of the “kafeel” sponsorship system is now more necessary, to create a more open labour market.


The figure below shows an estimate of the make-up of the Dubai work force (Indian subcontinent includes Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers).