Midday break to be strictly enforced

Three-month ban on working in direct sun from 12.30 to 3pm has come into force but some labourers still toiled yesterday.

June 15, Workers from the Better Gardens landscaping company still at work at 12:50 on a project in the Marina.  June 15, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/ The National)
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There will be zero tolerance of companies flouting the midday-break law that took effect yesterday.

Until September 15, outdoor workers must be given a daily break from 12.30pm to 3pm, when they are not permitted to work in the sun and must be provided with fluids and a shaded rest area.

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The National found the rule widely observed, although workers were toiling during break hours at two of eight sites visited in Dubai.

"We have had over the past years employers who flouted the rules by extending work in to the break by a few minutes, or starting early," said Qasim Mohammed, the head of the guidance unit at the Ministry of Labour. "We will not allow any flouting this year as the time is set and all companies have to abide by it."

The ministry will send out 120 inspectors in 19 teams to check sites across the country. The aim is for 60,000 inspections, said Maher al Awbad, the executive director of inspections at the ministry - more than six times as many as last year.

Some workers said yesterday they had not been told about the ban and continued to work in the heat.

"We haven't been informed by our company that we should stop work," said one worker from Better Gardens, a landscaping company in Dubai. "We will wait for another two days before we ask our supervisor about it. It is extremely hot to work during these months."

Elton Cummins, the general manager of Better Gardens, blamed first-day confusion. "The supervisor had to leave for an emergency," he said, "and the contractors weren't sure if they had to stop since we have permission to work on some sites during the break."

Another group of workers from Dulsco Waste Management Services continued to collect rubbish in the Tecom area during the break. They said they were scheduled to pick up rubbish from at least 30 sites in the afternoon.

"We are not aware that we are not supposed to work," said one. "It is quite hot to go around collecting trash in the afternoons. The air conditioning in the vehicle isn't working either, which makes it really difficult. It is quite exhausting."

The company said some employees who spent a lot of time in vehicles were exempt from the break.

"We currently do not apply the midday break rule to employees working from vehicles, where for the majority of the time they are in the vehicle rather than in the sun," said Prakash Parab, the company director.

"Over 95 per cent of the company's vehicles are air-conditioned and the company is committed to raising the figure to 100 per cent. We also equip all our vehicles with cold water flasks and electrolyte sachets to help our employees to cope with the summer months."

Mr al Awbad said the break applied only to workers in open sites under the sun, although the ministry was considering extending it to include people working anywhere not insulated from the heat.

"If construction workers are operating inside a building the rule does not apply to them," he said. "But we understand it is sometimes hotter in the shade than in the open inside these construction sites."

Company officials said they were keen to comply with the break and some said they did not extend working hours in the evenings to compensate for the lost time.

"We do not want them to work extra hours because that would tire them," said Moheb Monir, construction manager at Al Shafar General Contracting.

"We provide information in different languages using signboards on how they should take care of themselves during the summer months."

In Sharjah, the biggest challenge was finding a decent place to shelter. While work had ceased by 12.30pm several workers were left on their own to find a rest place.

Many slept under trees by the roadside in al Khan, al Qassimiya, al Ramla, al Nabba and al Nahda, others under bridges and parked lorries.

"Those who wish to go to their room in Sajjaa area allowed to go, but the engineer wants us at exactly 3.30," said Muslim Khari, a 30-year-old Indian who was escaping the sun under a bridge at al Qasba. "With the evening traffic jam and van delays we may be late and the engineer gets mad at us."

Another worker said he preferred not to return to his accommodation for the break because it was time consuming and would make him more tired.

"If you arrive there at 1pm, you eat and as you try to catch a sleep they will wake you up to return to work," he said. "It's better to sleep here on the street."

Hussaini Makhdoom, 35, from Bangladesh, who slept under a mosque verandah, said his company did not provide transport back to his accommodation in Ajman during the break.

"Some of my friends stay at the work site but there is no air conditioning there," he said. "I prefer to come here, pray, and sleep at the mosque until the time to resume work."

Last year 640 construction companies and factories were fined a total of Dh6.4 million for failing to observe the rule, according to Mr al Awbad.

Ajman had the most offenders, 170, one more than Abu Dhabi. In Fujairah 102 companies were fined; in Al Ain 74. Ras al Khaimah had 58 fines, Dubai 31, Umm al Quwain, 19 and Sharjah 17.

First-time offenders are fined Dh10,000 and prevented from receiving new work permits for six months. Those that break the rules again face a Dh15,000 and a nine-month ban; a third offence carries a Dh20,000 fine and a one-year hiring freeze.