Fear is Forever!

The shocking treatment of thousands of jobless migrant labourers in the Gulf is a sobering reminder that the global financial crisis should not only be viewed as a threat to remittance flows, but also to the basic human rights of South Asian workers

Sophia Furber Dubai, Hardnews

The construction boom in the Gulf States, responsible for creating tens of thousands of jobs for labourers from South Asia over the past six years, is now grinding to a halt. The combination of the credit crunch and plummeting oil prices have dealt a blow to the economies of the Gulf States, and the property market has been one of the most dramatic casualties. Even the most brash and ambitious real estate developers in the Emirates have been forced to admit that they are feeling the pinch, and have been forced to fire workers and scale down projects.

Indeed, around 50 per cent of all commercial and residential projects planned to come online between 2009 and 2012 in Dubai have now been cancelled or put on hold due to low demand and difficulty obtaining finance.

While the downturn bas brought about an embarrassing loss of face for the Gulf's real estate giants, it is the low-paid migrant labourers that they employ who are being hit hardest. South Asian countries are now bracing themselves for a fall in remittances from the Gulf States, and for the return of thousands of out-of-work construction labourers. Remittances by South Asians in the Gulf could decline by 9 per cent in 2009 due to the weakening market, compared with a 38 per cent increase in 2008, according to World Bank forecasts.

Several construction companies in the Emirates have already block-booked seats on planes to fly up to 30,000 unwanted workers home on indefinite leave or to other Gulf countries for redeployment, according to the Indian consulate in Dubai, and further job cuts are expected to follow. 

However, a fall in remittances is not the only cause for concern for the tens of thousands of South Asian labourers working in the region. Tougher economic times mean a real risk that construction companies will start to cut corners, scrimping on wages and accommodation for labourers, and failing to implement safety regulations.

While the price of building materials may be subject to increases, and financing more difficult to obtain in these post-credit crunch days, it appears that human life is the one thing that still comes cheap for construction companies.

Construction companies in the Gulf have a poor record on upholding workers' rights at the best of times. Bans on work on construction sites between the hours of 12 and 4 pm, when temperatures can soar to as high as 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, have regularly been ignored by contractors in the UAE and Bahrain, and labourers can often be seen working without hard hats or proper safety harnesses. In Bahrain, 37 workers were killed in accidents on construction sites last year, and just over two weeks into 2009 the first fatality of the year was confirmed.

Sitaram Muralidar, a 42-year old Indian national, was killed after being hit by a wooden plank that fell from the 20th floor of a building under construction. A subsequent report released by the Bahrain Labour Ministry reported that the construction firm that employed Muralidar had violated the law by failing to provide workers with proper safety equipment. Dubai, the epicentre of the Gulf construction boom, has perhaps the worst record in the region on workplace safety, with nearly 900 construction-related deaths recorded between 2004 and 2007.

Embassy statistics for fatalities among Nepali migrant workers, relative newcomers to the Gulf labour market, are equally disturbing, and are a grim indicator of the poor working and living conditions that many migrants have to face. Around 700 Nepalis died in the Gulf States in 2007, 49 per cent from "natural causes" and the remainder from cardiac arrests, suicides and industrial accidents. Cardiac arrests are reportedly common among Nepali workers, who are unused to heavy physical work in desert temperatures.

Fatalities aside, migrant labourers in the construction sector routinely face disputes over pay and conditions. Workers are routinely asked to hand over their passports to their employers on arrival, and often find themselves being forced to work for lower wages than those specified in their contracts.

Nick McGeehan, founding member of human rights group Mafiwasta, which campaigns for the rights of migrant labourers in the Emirates, believes that the outlook for working conditions in the Gulf will only get worse as a result of the economic crisis. "Work's going to go, contracts are not going to be borne out, and there will be even less concern for workers' conditions," said McGeehan. As jobs are inevitably lost in the construction sector, workers could find themselves in a "legal no-man's-land" according to McGeehan. Repatriation of workers that are no longer needed is an expensive business, and he fears that cash-strapped corporations could neglect their responsibilities to pay for workers to return home. This could leave thousands stranded in the Gulf without enough money to return home, or a valid work permit to find alternative employment.

Corporations increasingly use the financial crisis as an excuse for failing to implement new laws to protect workers' safety, saying that new measures will be too costly. Construction companies in Bahrain, known to be one of the more progressive countries in the region in protecting workers' rights, are now dragging their feet on putting a ban on the dangerous practice of transporting workers in open trucks into action.

The ban was initially proposed by the government in November 2007 after it emerged that eight workers were killed and countless others injured in the first half of the year as a result of traffic accidents involving open trucks, where they are crammed like cattle. A government proposal to outlaw transport of staff in open trucks from January 1, 2009 onwards was met with outrage from the private sector.

One leading businessman even made the overblown claim that it would cost the construction industry over BD 1 million (Rs 131.8 billion) to buy modern buses, apparently an unacceptable burden given the economic climate. The ban was implemented at the beginning of the year despite the outcry, but companies have paid lip service to the ruling. 

"The ban on transporting workers in open trucks is far from enforced," said Esra'a al Shafei, a Bahrain-based human rights activist and director of Mideast Youth, a regional blogging platform. "Instead of open trucks, some companies have surrounded the trucks with wooden boards that, I would assume, is seriously uncomfortable and most likely just as dangerous. It's a very cheap attempt at a 'solution'."

The government, it seems, is all too willing to turn a blind eye to violations of the new law. "Now we don't know what we as concerned activists for migrant rights can do. If we go to the government, they will say the law is there, and that it's up to the companies to abide by it," explained Esra'a al Shafei. "If we go to the companies, they will provide the same justifications that they have been providing for years - it's too expensive and unnecessary."

Discussion of the impact of the financial crisis on migrant workers has tended to focus exclusively on a drop in remittances as overseas employment opportunities dry up. This is unsurprising in the case of South Asian economies such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan which lean heavily on remittances as a source of foreign currency reserves. Remittances now account for 15.5 per cent of the total GDP in Nepal, and 9.5 per cent in Bangladesh, where fears are mounting about the effect of a slowdown in remittances on macroeconomic stability.

However, a view from the roads and construction sites of the Gulf States shows that dire working conditions are just as much of a threat to migrant workers. There is a very real danger that the Gulf States will become a more dangerous place than ever for remaining migrant workers, as construction companies view basic rights and safety as just another area for cutbacks. The shocking treatment of labourers in the Gulf is a sobering reminder that the global financial crisis should not only be viewed as a threat to remittance flows, but also to the basic human rights of labour migrants.