Labourers told, you'll be back home in weeks

A lawyer for the foreign workers says he believes his clients will be paid soon - but face a long journey to return to their home countries.

ABU DHABI // Eighty-three foreign workers left to fend for themselves in squalid conditions by their bankrupt construction company were told yesterday that they could expect to be flown home by mid-March. The pledge came despite news from a court that they could not expect to receive their back wages until early April.

It is not the first time the employees of Al Otaiba and Garg Contracting have heard a contradictory promise since their firm started winding down operations in 2008 and eventually left them without any means of supporting themselves or returning to their home countries. Still, there are signs that their ordeal may finally be ending. Ansari Sainuddin, their lawyer, said Al Otaiba and Garg, an Emirati-owned company that operated for two decades and once had more than 400 employees, was in the final stages of liquidating assets worth about Dh3.65 million (US$1 million) to pay its debts.

"The collection of money through the assets of the company has caused delays," Mr Sainuddin said. "The money collected will be used to pay the workers as well as debts to other clients that are owed." Last September, the emirate's Sharia court outlined how much compensation 128 of Otaiba's former employees should receive. Since then, the company's supervisors and engineers have received their money. Another 45 employees, mostly workers, have also received compensation and have all since left the country.

According to a court official, the company, which became insolvent last year, paid more than Dh100,000 to the first group of employees. The second group, comprised entirely of labourers, stands to receive about Dh350,000. Most of the 83 remaining workers have been with the company for more than 20 years and claim they are each owed more than Dh50,000 in back pay and benefits. They continue to live in their run-down labour accommodation in Musaffah.

Although authorities stepped in to provide them with food and medicine more than seven months ago, they say they have faced problems with rubbish disposal and have not had enough to eat. They faced more heartbreak on Tuesday when they went to the court to collect their money, but the session was postponed again until April 5 since the company had failed to liquidate its assets. They returned to their camp disappointed and empty-handed.

One of the workers, Yamna Singh, 54, from India, said the payment date had been delayed several times since last September. "We have built this country for the past two decades," he said. Al Otaiba and Garg's sole remaining representative said he hoped to receive the money from the company very soon so it could be handed over to the court for re-distribution. "I hope to receive it next week and will deposit it in the court. It will cover everything and more," said Nabil Abujabarah, the company's public relations officer.

"We cannot blame [the workers] for not wanting to take new jobs because many want to return home. About 90 per cent of them want to see their family." He added that some of the remaining workers now had airline tickets - but still needed clearances from ministries, including the immigration department, to avoid fines as most of their visas and passports had expired. "They have tickets but they do not have the documentation," said Mr Abujabarah.

He added that "before the March 15, everyone will be home", apparently unaware that the workers will now have to wait at least until April to receive their money. There is no guarantee that the money will be ready by then. The workers' lawyer stressed that it was Mr Abujabarah "responsibility to tackle issues like expired visas and passports". Mr Abujabarah, a Jordanian who spent 13 years with the company, said he was "in the same shape".

"I have also not been paid. After they get paid, I will release myself and go to my country," he said.