Workers in a labour camp on the outskirts of the Abu Dhabi staged a protest because they have not been paid since February. Meanwhile, their living quarters are turning into hotspots for the novel coronavirus. French construction giant Altrad shut down its building sites leaving workers without pay. Nepal-based trade unionist slams multinationals for taking advantage of the lack of workers’ rights.
Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) – Young migrants, crowded in a labour camp on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), have staged a protest for the non-payment of wages.
Although exceptional, this is not a unique event In the Gulf region where workers are often exploited in a silent world.
This is another consequence of the coronavirus pandemic that hit the global economy, with businesses shutting down, construction sites idled, job lost and people left without wages.
This is especially true for migrant workers who are not only out of work but also without unemployment benefits, and so cannot send money home to help their families in the countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, or Nepal.
Crammed in tight quarters without physical distancing and protection, they are a great risk of contracting the coronavirus.
In many Gulf countries, including the UAE and Qatar, migrants constitute up to 95 per cent of the workforce. For trade union officials and workers, the situation is becoming increasingly difficult.
French construction giant Altrad illustrates the situation. According to French daily Le Monde, the company – led by founder Mohed Altrad, France’s 31st richest man – employs more than 15,000 employees in the Gulf region.
With its building sites shuttered, many of its Asian workers are confined to living quarters with no pay. “Our employer hasn’t paid us for two months,” said one Indian worker wearing a mask. “Although we get food, we have many problems”. Hence, “we prevent the few people who still do from going to work.”
Bibek, not his real name, a 23-year-old man, also Indian, was hired by AMB-Hertel in February to install scaffolds. However, soon after, the pandemic forced the company to stop work and the young man found himself jobless, deprived of his salary of 290 euros (US5) per month.
“This has been going for two months,” he said via Whatsapp, “and although in the last few days I did some work, I caught COVID-19. I'm in a separate room, with others who tested positive. There are many infected people in the camp. People are afraid.”
AMB-Hertel is Altrad’s UAE affiliate. The company’s head office is in Montpellier (France).
When contacted by Le Monde, which showed videos and statements, the company reacted by calling them “slanderous” from a "small minority of individuals" who “are not showing the real facts.”
With respect to what is real, several sources have confirmed that wages have not been paid, and that the number of coronavirus cases are up, with many workers asymptomatic.
More recently, more and more workers are being laid off. Nepal-based human rights activist Andy Hall notes “how like many multinationals operating in the Gulf," Altrad too "took advantage of the total absence of unions in the region to do what it wants."
In France, “such practices are totally banned. But in the Gulf, with workers who are less educated and among the most vulnerable in the world, all this is allowed.”