Reem Island workers in legal catch-22

Fifty workers fired from a construction project say they are unable to leave the UAE until the contractor pays them what they are owed.

ABU DHABI // Fifty workers fired from a Reem Island construction project say they cannot leave the country until the contractor pays them end-of-service benefits and back salary they are owed.

The workers, mostly engineers and foremen, were dismissed last week after more than 400 labourers on the Tameer Towers project went on strike over unpaid wages.

The contractor on the Dh7 billion development, Al Rajhi Projects, has cut several hundred jobs in four rounds of redundancies since April. Those who lost their jobs in the first wave have still not received settlements, some of which are as high as Dh375,000.

But the workers who have been fired cannot accept new jobs or return home until Al Rajhi pays them, because cancelling a visa requires settling all debts between employee and employer.

"I'm afraid if I leave, I will not get my settlement," one worker said. He does not know how much he is owed or whether he is entitled to any annual leave payments. "I have a chance to work in other countries, but they won't tell me when my visa will be cancelled."

Workers at the Tameer Towers site - a four-building development that will include a five-star hotel - went on strike last month after they were paid no wages for nearly three months. The contractor has since paid those wages, but July's salaries are now overdue.

No work has taken place at the site since the strike began on July 18. One employed worker said he had been told all the labourers would be laid off within the month.

Neither Al Rajhi nor the project's developer, Tameer Holding Investment, could be reached for comment.

Ministry of Labour inspectors have met the dismissed workers, who are eligible to take jobs with other companies without Al Rajhi's permission or to be repatriated at the company's expense.

While some have pursued legal action against Al Rajhi, others - from senior management to watchmen and labourers - are reluctant to take claims to the Ministry of Labour.

"I want to be patient before I report them to the ministry, but how long can I wait?" one said. "They're giving me the runaround. They don't have anyone here authorised to sign off on our visa cancellations. All we care about is that they pay us what we are owed."

A ministry official said legal action had been taken against Al Rajhi, freezing recruitment and new construction permits. The company could face further action and a fine of Dh10,000 per worker, up to Dh5m.

The Ministry of Labour official said the dismissed workers were free to cancel their visas and begin working for a new company.

"The labourers should ensure good and safe work with accommodation and make sure to file a case with the Ministry of Labour," he said. "We will guarantee they receive their settlement."

Alex McGeoch, a senior legal consultant and head of employment at the law firm Hadef and Partners, said the Reem Island workers may not be aware of their options.

"Legally, their standing is rock solid, but in practical terms, it's very different," Mr McGeoch said. "These people may not know what their rights are, or where to turn."

Mr McGeoch and the ministry official said the workers had a right to seek legal advice and to call for a resolution to be arbitrated.

One worker said he planned to wait at least one more month before filing an official complaint.

"I know Al Rajhi Projects is having a really hard time, and I want to give them a chance to help me," he said.

The fate of the labourers who are expected to be fired this month is not known. The ministry official said inspectors would help workers to find new jobs and file complaints.

jthomas@thenational.ae

Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM

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