Abu Dhabi taxi firm's drivers in eight-month legal row

About 100 Tawasul driver filed a complaint in February over unpaid wages. Eight months later, many have no resolution.

September 20, 2010/  Mussaffa / Taxi drivers from Tawasul gather at an ICAD residential apartment, some with signed contracts in hand from Tawasul; are suing the company for unpaid wages and breach of contract September 20, 2010. (Sammy Dallal / The National)
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ABU DHABI // Israr Abbasi says he has not worked since March.

In the midst of a drawn-out dispute with the taxi operator Tawasul, he claims he has been unable to work elsewhere because he has been denied a temporary permit to do so as allowed under labour law.

His employers, however, say he and about 100 drivers who filed a court case in February claiming the company was withholding their wages were attempting to exploit the labour law to work elsewhere.

In the arcane and complex world of labour law, their case offers just a glimpse into the often intractable divide both employers and employees face in resolving their disputes through the courts.

Mr Abassi said Tawasul took his vehicle away in March. And so far only about a third of the cases have worked their way through the courts. In the meantime, he and his fellow litigants said they have not worked a single day.

"It's very difficult," he said. "We are surviving by taking loans from friends and family."

Abdullah Aj Kassab, the general manager of Tawasul, argues that the taxi drivers only took their case to the courts because they wanted to change their jobs. The law states that while a worker has a case before the courts, he is able to file for a temporary work permit, allowing him to work elsewhere while litigation with a previous employer continues.

He said their case had no merit, and Tawasul was not obliged to support them.

"If they stop working, why should we pay them? They all stopped work on their own, we don't stop them from working if they go to [the] courts."

Mr Abbasi admitted the drivers had sought temporary permits, but said most were denied. Offering a permit is discretionary.

"Two people have received a work permit. The rest of us are just sitting in our rooms," he said. "Now it is too much of a problem because we cannot send money home to families in the flood."

Shakeel Ahmed has also filed a case. His family lost their home in Pakistan's floods in August, and he wants to return to help them, but cannot. "I have no money," he said.

The row centres around the interpretation of their contracts. All the drivers signed deals that they said guaranteed a minimum salary, plus commission.

The drivers believed their contract implied that commission should be paid on top of their basic salaries. Tawasul said the salary was just a minimum guaranteed payment.

In the contracts presented by the drivers, there was no mention of a commission scheme, nor did the documents clarify whether salaries should be made separately from other payments. The salary slips showed that the drivers were paid only commission.

The situation boiled over when the drivers discovered a clause in a new salary structure sent by Tawasul to all its drivers.

The new pay scheme granted the drivers their request that base salaries would be paid in addition to commission.

However, some of the papers read: "I verify and understand that I have received all my previous salaries."

Mr Aj Kassab denied knowledge of the documents.

Mr Abbasi and the other drivers who have filed court cases refused to sign the new salary agreement.

Another document includes an agreement to reimburse Tawasul for licensing, training and registration fees. This would violate the UAE's labour law.

The drivers claimed it was among the stack of documents that accompanied the new agreement.

However, Mr Aj Kassab said it was fraudulent and was not issued by his company. It was not included in the evidence submitted to the courts, which he found suspicious, he said. "The document would be a cornerstone in their argument," he said. "If they gave this to the expert they would get everything they asked for."

The drivers also claimed they have been forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day to make sufficient money. Under the terms of their contracts, they were supposed to work only eight-hour shifts and a maximum of 48 hours a week.

However, Mr Abbasi said the company required him and his fellow drivers to work twice the mandated work day, seven days a week, including holidays, or they would fall short of the targets set by Tawasul.

Mr Aj Kassab said no one was forcing the drivers to work long hours.

"There is no such thing as working hours for taxi drivers," he said.

"You work your own hours, some drivers are happy working four hours per day and make their target, some work eight hours per day and make their target. We also have a two-shift system, which is six days a week for 12 hours."

About 30 cases have worked their way through the courts, and Mr Aj Kassab claimed 90 expert reports have been completed.

Meanwhile, he has been preparing to replace Mr Abbasi and his fellow litigants with new drivers.

"I've hired about another 200 drivers who are in the pipeline to take their spots. This [case] is hurting us a great deal, but we've got other drivers."

Nadeem Yunis was another driver waiting for his next day in court, next Wednesday. "These days it is very hard to survive. It feels like we're still in Ramadan," he said. "We are waiting for a miracle."