Quarter of labourers clinically depressed

A new study has recommended that a minimum wage be established for blue-collar employees who work for long hours, to reduce incidences of depression and suicide.

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DUBAI // A new study has called for a minimum wage after finding evidence that blue-collar workers who toiled long hours for low pay were more likely to suffer from depression.

The report, the first to look at the mental health of blue-collar workers in the Emirates, found that as many as 25.1 per cent of respondents were clinically depressed.

That figure is unusually high, the report's authors say. In western countries, the rate of depression among immigrant workers is around four to six per cent.

The study also found that 6.3 per cent of respondents had suicidal thoughts, and 2.5 per cent had attempted to take their own lives. Earlier this year, the Indian consulate released figures saying that in 2010, as many as 110 expatriate Indians committed suicide in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

The paper's findings have been passed to the Ministry of Labour, with a set of policy recommendations, said the researcher Fatima Al Maskari, an associate professor in the department of community medicine at UAE University.

The report did not specify what the minimum wage should be.

"We found that having a chronic illness, having a low salary and working long hours were a strong risk factor for having depression and suicidal ideation," she said. "The salaries for these workers should increase and they should not work more than eight hours a day. Some policies could be changed in relation to these two points. We cannot do anything about physical illness, but definitely we can do something about the salary and work hours."

The study was carried out between October and November 2008 among male migrant workers in labour camps in Al Ain.

Translated questionnaires were distributed to 318 labourers. The questionnaires contained the standard Depression and Anxiety Stress Scale. The researchers received 239 completed surveys.

The study found the longer the hours labourers worked, the greater the number suffering from depression. For instance, 46.7 per cent who worked 12 hours a day suffered from depression, compared with 12.7 per cent who worked fewer than eight hours.

The trend was also repeated in salaries. As many as 53.8 per cent of those earning less than Dh500 a month suffered from depression. Conversely, of those earning more than Dh1,000 a month, only 19 per cent suffered from the condition.

"In our study, we have seen a trend: as income goes down, you have more and more cases of depression," said Syed Shah, another report author and associate professor of the department of community medicine at UAE University. "If you are working long hours, you are also more prone to depression. These both should be regulated, so that people maintain their health.

"In many countries there is a minimum wage, where you can guarantee a decent standard of living. That is one of our recommendations in the study."

A spokesman for the labour ministry was unavailable for comment.

The charity Helping Hands regularly distributes aid to workers at labour camps in Dubai, and workers there often notice cases of depression. "Some of the men we meet with are depressed," said Elle Trow, one of the charity's founders. "They are on very low salaries. We do the very best to lift them."

The paper is due to be published in the Immigrant Minority Health journal next month, although it is already available online.

Ms Al Maskari said that she was aware the issue was a sensitive one, but the authors were doing the best they could to remain neutral.

"We are not trying to criticise anything," she said, "but we are trying to describe the reality of this group. In recent years, many people were upset over human rights groups saying that labourers are not being treated properly in this country. We are not doing this study to emphasise this point, but we want to scientifically describe the reality."