Fasting workers spared heavy labour

Several contractors are allowing Muslim labourers to work shorter and less strenuous shifts during Ramadan.

September 2, 2008 / Abu Dhabi / Two lone worshipers pray at a Mosque off of 13th Street near Airport Road in Abu Dhabi September 2, 2008. (Sammy Dallal / The National) 

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ABU DHABI // Muslim labourers are working shorter and less strenuous shifts during Ramadan to minimise the health risks associated with fasting in the sweltering summer heat, several contractors have said. The holy month began on Monday with maximum temperatures in coastal regions of 40°C or more and humidity of about 30 per cent. During Ramadan, followers are not permitted to ingest any liquid during daylight hours.

To prevent dehydration and heatstroke, several construction firms said their Muslim workers had been given shorter shifts starting earlier in the day and were spared from heavy outdoor work. "We try to make sure that Muslim staff work indoors as it's still too hot and dangerous for them to work outside and also make sure they avoid heavy manual labour," said Bishoy Azmy, the chief executive of the Dubai-based contractor Al Shafar General Contracting.

The company's Muslim staff work a single shift, from 7.30am to 2pm. Its non-Muslim employees work the same number of hours later in the day, but can choose to work a full day for overtime pay. Under labour laws, such employees are supposed to work at least two hours less per day during the month. For construction workers, that means working six hours instead of the usual eight. "Even though construction is fast-paced and we're on a tight schedule, for Muslims this is non-negotiable during Ramadan," Mr Azmy said.

Workers at Laing O'Rourke Middle East, the company building the Al Raha Beach project in Abu Dhabi, will be placed under heightened medical supervision, said Jonathan Eveleigh, the company's business development manager. "The health of all our workers are of concern to us at all times, but especially during Ramadan when we make special provisions for our Muslim colleagues by adjusting work patterns and shift timing... and reducing the stress on those who are fasting," Mr Eveleigh said.

Most workers on Aldar projects in Abu Dhabi will rotate between two shifts; a 6am to 12pm shift for Muslims, with non-Muslims given the option of working two to three hours extra in the morning or afternoon for overtime pay, and an 8pm to 3am night shift, with a one-hour break, according to an Aldar spokesman. David Savage, the managing director of Al Habtoor Leighton Group, the company building Trump Tower in Dubai, said Muslim workers started their shifts as early as 5am. The company may also operate night shifts.

Each year Ramadan moves backwards in the calendar by about 10 days. It last coincided with the summer before the UAE's building boom had begun in earnest. According to the Dubai Meteorological Office, daytime temperatures in September start to fall below the highs of July and August, averaging 38.9°C. Despite the drop in temperature, outdoor conditions are little improved. Sea temperatures reach a peak at this time of year, bringing warm, humid air to the coast. September has the highest humidity of the summer months and maximum temperatures occasionally reach 45°C, according to Meteorological Office statistics.

In such heat and humidity, workers are at serious risk of heat exhaustion, a potentially lethal form of heatstroke caused by loss of fluids and electrolyte imbalance, said Dr Ron McCulloch. "If you're working out there, you'll be losing electrolytes, particularly sodium potassium." Dr McCulloch advised companies to ensure that those fasting avoided the heat of the day and, for those working night shifts, were given sufficient time to digest food consumed at iftar.

In its guidelines on the prevention of heat-related illnesses, Health Authority Abu Dhabi urges outdoor workmen to start the day well hydrated, consuming fruit, vegetables, water and unsweetened juice for suhoor. Sugary food and drink, which increase the risk of dehydration, should be limited until iftar, it says. Samir Khosla, managing director of Dynamic Staffing Services, said most leading construction companies "show consideration" for fasting workers, adhered to federal regulations governing working hours and placed their on-site medical teams on alert. However, many smaller companies do not have provisions for on-site medical care and require non-Muslim staff to work full shifts without overtime pay, he said.

Mr Khosla said there was a "notable slowdown" on construction sites during Ramadan, forcing companies to compensate at other times of the year to keep their projects on schedule. * With additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida