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Mon, Jul 23, 2007 - Page 11 News List

United Arab Emirates enforces the midday rest


Walu, a 31-year-old Indian construction worker in the Gulf boomtown of Dubai, wipes the sweat from his face as he squints in the blazing midday sun.

"The work here is very hard and it is very hot," he said before adjusting the piece of brown-sack cloth wrapped around his head that provides modest protection against summer temperatures that surpass 40oC.

Walu, who like many Indians uses only one name, is one of hundreds of thousands of South Asian laborers working in Dubai and the six other desert states that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Like other laborers who toil away in the stifling heat and dust of Dubai's countless building sites, he is entitled to a break from 12:30pm to 3pm each working day during July and August when the sun's rays are strongest.

The importance of the time off was highlighted earlier this month when the local media reported that a construction worker had died of heat stroke.

The regulation was introduced three years ago by ministerial decree as part of measures to improve workers' conditions after the UAE came under fire from international rights watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), over alleged abuses of workers' rights.

Low-wage construction laborers have staged several protests since last year to demand back pay or better living and working conditions, even though the UAE prohibits demonstrations and unions.

The country's labour ministry has decided to enforce the rule more strictly this summer.

Labour Minister Ali bin Abdullah al-Kaabi inspected a Dubai construction site this week to see for himself that workers' right to a break was being respected. He even mingled with resting laborers and handed out refreshments and sun shades.

According to his deputy, Hamid bin Dimass, 150 of 450 companies so far inspected this summer were in violation of the regulation and subsequently fined. Dimass said the figure was lower than last year's.

Ministry officials could not be reached for comment but the English-language daily Gulf News said more than 100 companies were fined a total of 1.2 million dirhams (US$327,000) during the first 13 days of the rule's enforcement this summer.

The ministry said this month that it had assembled a team of new inspectors that would closely monitor construction sites to ensure a "safe and secure working environment."

An industry source, who declined to be named, said matters had improved but feared some contractors would still be tempted to ignore the regulation because of time constraints.

Companies who do face stiff penalties. These include fines of up to 30,000 dirhams for each laborer found working during the break. The company also stands to be publicly named by the ministry.

"Overall, the observance of the midday break has got a lot better than it was in the past," the source said. "But the firms still have strict [delivery] deadlines to meet."

Construction giant Nakheel, which is building several huge artificial islands off the coast of Dubai, said in a statement that it understood the importance of the midday break and would be willing to take strong action to ensure its contractors adhered to it.

"In the instance where contractors are found to be falling below the required standards, we take the necessary action, which could mean fines or review of contract," it said.

So far, the ministry's crackdown seems to be proving effective, with reports suggesting there has been a sharp drop in the number of workers treated for heat-related cases.

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