What can be done to improve the lives of migrant construction workers?

Dubai labourannounced or started in the wider Gulf region. Many of Britain’s leading engineering consultancies, construction firms, law firms, management consultancies, project finance specialists and insurance companies are active there. Construction labour demand is projected to double within five years. In the next 20 years, up to 30 million individuals may participate in the Gulf Cooperation Council construction industry. This will be the largest movement of people across borders in search of work in human history. The huge demand for labour raises a host of issues including: · Sourcing the additional labour at a time of rising labour demand in the Indian subcontinent, · Accommodating the huge increases in migrant workers arriving in the Gulf. · Managing the additional numbers of construction workers. This raises issues of pay, conditions and representation which are becoming increasingly sensitive for the government of India and other countries that supply labour to the GCC, For example, many migrants borrow heavily from local loan sharks to pay an up front fee to recruiters, which is then paid off from remittances. · How are migrants treated both in work, and after their contract ends (or in the case of Dubai, recently) is prematurely curtailed? Does anyone help them return home? · Training. Many migrants arrive with no experience of working on a building site, creating risks both to themselves and building quality. The idea we were discussing involves the UK developing some kind of construction industry partnership with the United Arab Emirates that could in due course be extended to encompass all the countries of the GCC, the wider Gulf and other Middle East economies. This would look at a whole range of business development issues, including migrant labour. DubaiLaborersThis idea sounded very familiar from some work I’ve previously done on labour rights in the supply chains of clothing companies and supermarkets. About ten years ago, a group of UK NGOs got together with international trade unions and supermarket and garment companies like Sainsburys and Marks & Spencer and set up a ‘multistakeholder initiative’ (urgh) called the Ethical Trading Initiative. It’s still going and has become a place where some serious work goes on in finding ways to improve labour standards in incredibly fragmented global supply chains. Thorny issues include how to independently monitor compliance with labour standards, how to make sure last minute orders don’t push suppliers into exploiting their labour force, how to promote labour rights in China, and how to extend them to the informal sector, such as homeworkers. Maybe it’s time to set up an Ethical Construction Initiative (ECI). The stakeholders could include construction companies, governments (UK, Gulf, South Asia), NGOs and international building workers’ unions or migrant workers organizations. As with ETI, it could be financed by a combination of government grants and membership fees from construction companies What would it do? For starters, it could agree a code of conduct based on existing international agreements on migrant labour, develop systems to monitor compliance, establish a register of code-compliant recruitment agencies, conduct pilot programmes on other issues to develop best practice and lobby for new regulation and/or enforcement of existing regulation in the Gulf states and source countries. One big plus would be that if offers a way in to work on the issue of migration, a huge development issue that has largely failed to register with NGOs and development thinkers. Anyone know of any similar initiatives that an ECI could learn from?]]>

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7 Responses to “What can be done to improve the lives of migrant construction workers?”
  1. Thalia Kidder

    Labour rights of migrant workers are critical to address, and having an industry-wide initiative does help make visible good practice, and expose the worst offenders. Such an initiative can’t replace, however, the need for pressure on governments to enforce international and national labour standards, as part of human rights.
    International migration, combined with such an industry, raises many more issues of human development and economic justice: gender equality in training and employment conditions for women workers; ‘women left behind’ and the support services for them; the cost and accessibility of remittance services. Likewise, we might look at the ‘industries’ that may grow up around these massive construction projects
    – catering services and entertainment, sex work, transportation, explotative financial services/credit; housing for workers etc etc.
    A key issue in construction (and other industries) is Decent Work – stable employment arrangements. Otherwise, industry-wide initiatives tend to look at conditions for permanent employees
    with contracts, and ignore the vast numbers of daily labourers.
    This is a big issue! Who is discussing it? There are MANY migrant workers organisations already working between various parts of Asia/Africa and the Gulf. What have they already proposed??

  2. Ken Smith

    What improved conditions for the hundreds of thousands of Irish navvies who migrated to England in Victorian times to build canals and railways ?. I can’t remember learning about concerned social pioneers like Bernado or Wilberforce in this area at school. I’d say it was the simple human right to organise into Trade Unions and get themselves some power in the relationship with capital.

  3. John Magrath

    Isn’t this closing the stable door after the horse has bolted? What makes your entrepreneur contact so confident that construction in the Gulf is going to pick up in the foreseeable future?
    Also, why now? Labour abuses in the Gulf states have been rampant for years. As Thalia implies, if labour unions/migrant workers organisations have been marginalised for years (including by the construction industry), what hope is there for an industry body except to be “green wash”?

  4. Duncan

    A few responses: John, I think the rapid recovery of oil prices and huge currency reserves in the region might have something to do with his optimism on further contracts in the Gulf!
    Ken, absolutely agree on trade union rights, which is why you would need the international union movement involved, as it is in ETI, but does that mean if unionisation is not a realistic possibility (as it may not be in the foreseeable future in this industry) we just give up on the issue?
    Thalia, there’s a risk that the further you push out beyond the immediate employees of the firms involved in the initiative, the more dispersed the effort becomes. If you include the service workers, as you suggest, then why not the people producing power for the sites, or growing the food and making the clothes for the construction workers? Some kinds of boundaries are needed to make such a scheme manageable On the other hand, ETI has made some progress on homeworkers, and there is clearly an argument for some careful expansion of the remit, once such an initiative is up and running.

  5. Ken Smith

    You’re right unionisation is not a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future in this area. I’d like to see more criticism from international NGO’s of the governments in this area that deny this basic human right to these migrants.

  6. A good start is to try and change peoples attitudes.
    In countries that hire large volumes of immigrant labor like the UAE, governments should do more to educate the local population. Put a human face on these laborers and remind locals and employers that they are also people with families and dreams. Help people to understand why these workers have to go abroad to work and remind people that these migrant laborors deserve dignity and respect – just like the locals get.
    I was recently talking to some Filipino migrant workers and one of them said – ‘It really breaks our hearts that our employer shouts at us and treats us like we are less than human’.