Labourers receive Dh15m in owed wages

International praise for police who issued one-week deadlines to companies that failed to pay their workers on time.

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DUBAI // Workers have received Dh15 million (US$4m) in back wages since February thanks to a police unit that intervenes on behalf of unpaid employees, according to a senior official in the emirate. "During the financial crisis several companies were going through difficult times, which resulted in the delays of salaries, sometimes only for a week or two," said Col Mohammed al Mur, director general of the Dubai Police general department of legal and disciplinary control.

The money was recovered after action by the centre for the monitoring of human trafficking, which falls under his department. "But as our priority is to protect workers we had to intervene and help workers regain their rights," he said. "We gave the company a maximum of a week to pay workers their outstanding dues." The centre did not disclose the number of workers who received money or the number of companies that had withheld salaries.

The estimated expatriate workforce registered at the Ministry of Labour is 4.1 million, about half of whom live in Dubai. Market surveys show the average monthly salary for construction workers to be between Dh700 and Dh1,200. "The UAE Government will not allow any form of exploitation to take place on its soil," Col al Mur said. "We have made it clear to companies that we will not tolerate any delays or non-payments of salaries, and violating companies have been referred to court and we will continue to do so in the future."

Maurizio Bussi, the deputy regional director for the International Labour Organisation, praised the moves to protect workers' wages but called for more transparency. "To return Dh15 million in unpaid salaries is in principle a good move and there is clearly a lot of effort done by the UAE authorities in terms of wage protection," he said. "But to evaluate the real impact of this move on workers' conditions we need to look at it in comparative terms.

"We need to know the nature of these payments, if they are full payments or partial as well as the size and scope of the trend of unpaid salaries in the country." Samir Khosla, the vice chairman of Dynamic Staffing Services, a recruitment company, said the initiative would give much-needed support to workers in difficult financial conditions. "Many workers do not have a choice but to accept delays in salaries as they are burdened with debt to unscrupulous recruitment agencies back home," Mr Khosla said.

The centre for monitoring human trafficking was set up in February under 2006 federal guidelines, which prescribe penalties that include fines of up to Dh1 million. It also works to train law enforcement authorities to deal with victims, as well as to open channels with regional and international organisations that combat modern slavery. "There are no slavery cases among the temporary workforce in our country, and we are closely monitoring the conditions of this workforce to ensure that they are enjoying the rights they have been entitled in the law," said Lt Col Sultan al Jamal, the director of the centre.

There are various departments within the centre, including one that monitors the working and living conditions of the expatriate workforce. The department has two divisions - one dealing with inspections and precautionary campaigns and the other with labour protests. It works closely with the Ministry of Labour and the Permanent Committee for Labour Affairs in Dubai (PCLAD). Since it was set up, the centre has received 344 worker complaints, 76 per cent of which were related to non-payment of salaries, according to the centre's records.

Workers from Asian countries submitted more than 85 per cent of the complaints, followed by Arab nationals, who made up 11 per cent. Forty of the 69 protests staged in Dubai since February were because of non-payment of salaries. "However, in about 50 per cent of these protests the workers had not voiced their grievances through the official channels such as the Labour Ministry, the PCLAD or us and decided instead to take to the street," Col al Mur said.

"And many protests occurred because the workers were not aware of the rules and regulations. "So more awareness is needed among the workers on how to get their rights through the proper channels and about the country's regulations." The centre has also carried out more than 1,100 inspections on labour camps to ensure the workers' welfare. In May, the Ministry of Labour, in co-operation with the Central Bank, introduced the Wage Protection System, by which workers salaries are automatically paid into their bank accounts.

It allows the ministry to check if a company is defaulting on salaries or making unlawful deductions from the salaries through online notifications. The system currently covers more than 500,000 workers paid through banks and financial institutions. By the first half of next year, all private companies will have to pay salaries through these institutions. Also in May, the ministry launched the "My Salary" initiative, which allows workers to complain anonymously about unpaid or delayed salaries online or through a helpline, 800665.

Previously, if a worker wanted to complain about his salary, he had to file a complaint at the ministry and then appear with the employer at a hearing. Many workers, fearful of losing their jobs, found this system intimidating. In the first month of the "My Salary" initiative, 331 companies were reported for non-payment of salaries, six of which were referred to the Public Prosecution, according to the Ministry of Labour.