Take a walk around the beating heart of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) City, having escaped the cool of the air-conditioned mall, and it rapidly becomes clear that without its bustling south Asian population RAK would not be what it is today.
The city is where the bright colours of the garment shops, the Hindi cinema and the spice market are to be found, spiritually transporting the visitor to Mumbai, Delhi or Karachi. Everybody rubs shoulders here – Indian, Emirati, European and American – but there is no question as to who is responsible for generating the bustle and the business.
In keeping with much of the rest of the United Arab Emirates, the locals are in a minority in their own country in RAK. A 2009 census put the total RAK population at 241,000, of whom some 60% (mostly men) are guest workers. Nonetheless, it is the Emiratis – and the state – who will benefit from playing host to a guest population that includes Afghans, Tamils, Keralans, Pashtuns, Pakistanis, Gujaratis and Filipinos, and from the economic activity they generate.
Though some of their places of origin are just a four- or five-hour flight away, given the length of tenure that many workers – both manual and managerial – spend away from their families, it is only natural that they should reconstruct the commercial and other infrastructure of home in the streets of their host nation. Many in the managerial classes live in these enclaves, often bringing their families too, or setting up businesses, trading companies, restaurants or shops.
But for the majority of unskilled labourers, home is a shared room in one of the many unprepossessingly named labour camps.
Conditions for guest workers in the Gulf have come under scrutiny; anyone gazing awestruck at the architectural marvels of Dubai, for example, must also wonder at the fortitude – and desperation – of the labour commandeered to take them from the drawing board to the lofty heights. None are forced to come to the Gulf – all do so in the hope that it will allow them to contribute more to their family income than they could otherwise – but it remains an unforgiving life. In May, for example, the UAE’s Ministry of Labour warned RAK construction companies to improve their treatment of injured workers following complaints of negligence by hospitals.
Most investors cite the ‘flexibility’ of RAK’s labour laws as one of the contributing reasons behind their investment. The regime allows them to recruit outside RAK, with the RAK Investment Authority (RAKIA) handling visa requirements and paperwork, and RAKIA has also provided some labour camp accommodation as a means of keeping costs down for employers. It is, however, a fallacy to suggest that no rules apply. Companies operating in the free zone are subject to fairly stringent (and humane) labour laws: maximum working hours are eight per day and 48 per week.
Employees are entitled to public holidays with full pay; the free-zone authority must be notified of shift working, including number of shifts, hours and numbers to be employed per shift, and overtime is to be paid at between 25% and 50% above the basic hourly rate. In addition, any attempt to pass costs associated with employment onto the employee is illegal; employers must not attempt to charge to the employee or deduct from salary costs such as that of processing the entry permit, air ticket from point of origin, medical costs or identity checks.
Labour camps Admittedly, from the outside the labour camps look bleak, built adjacent to the plants they serve in the desert, not within easy reach of town. Low cost, not the provision of comfort, are typically the investor’s priorities.
Nonetheless, the manager of one plant was anxious to show fDi Magazine how his workers live, eat and sleep; and, if this is indicative of conditions in other camps, one could make an assumption that standards are reasonably high – catering facilities, in particular, are excellent in this case. The food (provided by an outsourcing company but cooked on the premises) includes menus to reflect Pakistani, Keralan and Filipino food preferences – extending to different kinds of rice grain, pulses and spices.
In other respects, the camp visited is inarguably austere: facilities provided include a shop, satellite television (one per room), internet cafe and a space marked ‘gymnasium’ (but yet to be provided with any equipment). Washing facilities are clean and adequate. Rooms are shared, four workers to a room, hostel-style, but they are of course air-conditioned. It is not the Hilton, but salaries are still considerably higher than they are in south and south-east Asia; the intention of all workers is to save and to send remittances, and to plan for a better life in the future.
And, one site manager tells fDi Magazine, there is scope for overtime at time-and-a-half and there are opportunities for promotion and job advancement. He adds that the payment system is fully automated to ensure that workers are always paid on time – alluding to recent reports that some workers in the UAE have faced payment delays of up to seven months.
Trips into town It would be misleading to overly extoll the conditions of the manual workforce in the UAE. But if their temporary homes look desolate, they have at least the comfort of shuttle buses transporting them into town during their off days; otherwise, you could imagine ennui settling in pretty quickly. But many find the atmosphere in RAK more amenable than living than Dubai, for example: RAK is pedestrian-friendly while Dubai can be less forgiving. In RAK it is possible to get out of town and into the hills (or to head to the beach) and, while ordinary workers are priced out of some of RAK’s more exclusive attractions, others, including the cinema, are more accessible.
The bottom line is that the UAE depends for its very survival on imported labour and talents; and it must provide the right kinds of incentives and protections – to both employers and employees – if it is to guarantee continued economic development.
This report was sponsored by RAKIA. Reporting and editing were carried out independently by fDi Magazine