Diverse Cultural Backgrounds Reveal Nuances In labour Hiring Process

The issue of migrant labour in the UAE and the Middle East at large is an often-articulated one. Despite the often-gloomy image depicted in the media, ...

Mar 15, 2014

The issue of migrant labour in the UAE and the Middle East at large is an often-articulated one. Despite the often-gloomy image depicted in the media, obtaining employment is a sought-after prospect for many jobless young men from the Indian subcontinent. The fragile developing economies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among other countries, often leave their young population with little choice within their home countries. Many overseas employment agencies fill the demand for labour and charge a hefty one-time fee for an employment contract in a construction firm or a small business enterprise. More often than not, the benefits of a permanent employment contract and a decent salary in foreign currency outweighs the uncertain future and personal cost of living away from families for months at a time. These calculations have led more than 3 million immigrants to seek a livelihood in the United Arab Emirates alone.
Generally, the migrant labour issue carries negative connotations in mainstream Western media. Images of cramped rooms in labour camps are widespread; allegations of long working hours and passport confiscation abound. However, the missing link is often the fact that, for the most part, the physical surroundings as well as the job conditions are better than the best employment these labourers can get back home. This does not translate into satisfaction with the labour market since there is always room for improvement. Yet the situation described by the media with such disgust is considered a blessing by many labourers and their families who get to live a better life off the earnings they make in Arabian Peninsula.
Societies in the Indian Subcontinent society tend to be very family-oriented. Therefore one of the primary expectations of such a society is for an individual to be able to provide for immediate family and relatives. Unfortunately, a large young population and a struggling economy means a lot of young people are unable to do this. The already-minute chances of getting a day contract are hindered by political unrest in a part of the world where shutter-down strikes and public property destruction are an unfortunate reality. On the other hand, those lucky enough to find a job in the Middle East without getting conned in the process are seen as saviours of the family. A consistent, above-average income means medical treatment for ailing parents, a chance to break the cycle of poverty for the younger generation and prestige among extended family by virtue of the ability to help those in dire need. Many labourers in the Middle East indeed hail from small villages of the subcontinental countryside without having travelled too far in their lives. Far away from friends and family, the motivation to keep going is usually a permanent roof back home and the luxury of not needing to about where the family's next meal is coming from.
Not surprisingly, the labour recruitment market in the Subcontinent is a pretty thriving one. Delegations of human resource teams from multinational construction firms tend to visit frequently in collaboration with overseas Recruitment Agencies based in the home countries. In hundreds of “Trade Test Centres” across the region, the applicants are tested for their skills in stonework, woodworks, plumbing, etc. Following the test, the successful applicants submit their passports and a fee ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 AED. The recruitment procedure is channeled through embassies of the destined country as well as the Ministry of the Interior. Over the past decade, in response to 9/11 and growing human trafficking, immigration amendments have created greater transparency. However, it is still unlikely that you will be robbed of your money by a fraudulent recruitment agency, an issue which can only be addressed in the home countries.
The UAE, as one of the most desired GCC destinations, has evolved to ensure the implementation of the labour rights. These include multiple sets of regulations concerning living conditions in the labour camps and the on-site safety of the construction workers. In addition to that, surprise visits and hefty fines are a part of the strategy to ensure implementation, for example, Municipality Team inspections in the labour camps and a long work break at midday during summer season. As a result, labour conditions in the UAE are much better than in most of the other GCC counterparts in terms of average on-site casualties, the efficiency of labour courts, transparency in the recruitment procedure and living conditions in labour camps, where most of the labourers reside.
While a robust debate is necessary to work towards the betterment of issues, it is even more critical to take into consideration the surroundings from which most the immigrant labourers hail. While the developed countries’ standards of minimum wage or working conditions are an impressive ideal to work towards, time must take its course. In the meanwhile, let us also appreciate the opportunity UAE offers to millions of families scattered across the South Asia in uplifting them from the harsh life from which their own governments have failed to lift them.
Editor's note: We have retained the author's original spelling of "labour" to align with his preference.
Ahmed Hameed is a contributing writer. Email him at
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