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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 February 2008, 12:04 GMT
Migrants demand labour rights in Gulf
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Asian workers in the UAE
Asian workers work long hours in poor conditions for little pay
For decades, migrant workers in the oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf worked hard, sent home millions of dollars' worth of remittances - and seemed immune to labour unrest. Now there are signs that is beginning to change.

On Sunday, a court in Dubai sentenced 45 Indian construction workers to six months in prison for their involvement in protests demanding pay increases.

On their release from jail, they face deportation.

The sentences follow a series of demonstrations late last year, when construction workers demanding better pay and conditions took to the streets, attacking police and overturning vehicles.

Why now?

It's not just in Dubai that labour unrest appears to be on the rise.

In Bahrain, a week-long strike by some 1,300 mostly Indian workers ended recently when they agreed to a wage rise.

Map fo the gulf
13 million foreign workers in the Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman - about 37% of the population
In Dubai, in the UAE there are 1 million migrant workers comprise and 250,000 citizens
Majority of foreign workers are Asian

In both countries, the main reason for the labour unrest is the impact of inflation and the exchange rate.

The currencies of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries are pegged to the US dollar - and since the dollar is weak, the value of wages has slumped.

"The recent strike in Bahrain was essentially about low wages," says Jane Kinninmont of the Economist Intelligence Unit, who forecasts there may be more labour unrest to come.

"Some Indian workers are paid as little as $160 a month for a six or seven-day week," she says, "whereas the average national is paid seven times as much."

Poor conditions

There are about 13 million foreign workers in the six GCC states - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman - making up about 37% of the population.

Bahrain is home to about 700,000 people, a third of whom are foreign workers.

In Dubai, one of the seven emirates which make up the UAE, migrant workers comprise an overwhelming majority of the population.

Here, a million-strong foreign workforce coexists with about a quarter of a million citizens.

Migrant workers, most of them Asian, have long complained of low wages, poor living conditions and a lack of proper healthcare.

Many are also exploited by unscrupulous recruitment agencies.

Acting against abuses

Responding to labour unrest in 2006 and 2007, UAE Labour Minister Ali al-Kaabi sought to act against some of these abuses.

Riot police surrounded a labour camp in Dubai October 2007
Riot police surrounded a labour camp in Dubai
In a region where heat exhaustion takes a daily toll, he introduced mid-day work breaks during the hot summer months.

He ordered one well-connected company to pay about $2m in fines for failing to pay its workers.

But in a recent cabinet reshuffle, Mr Kaabi was replaced - amid speculation that he had upset some powerful people.

The authorities in Bahrain are also trying to damp down unrest.

"The labour minister set up a commission to arbitrate in the most recent dispute," says Jane Kinninmont.

But she adds that the minister, like his counterparts elsewhere in the GCC, "is also trying to reduce the number of expatriates in the workforce, to free up more jobs for nationals".

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the UAE to improve its labour standards.

It accuses the country of "cheating workers".

Although some workers are becoming more militant, trade unions are still banned.

Labour unrest has come as a shock in Dubai, proud of its international image for business enterprise and glitzy, high-rise modernity.

But since the GCC states are unwilling to revalue their currencies, migrant workers will continue to feel the pinch.

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