DUBAI // People who lose their jobs could be allowed to stay in the country for up to six months, the Minister of Labour said yesterday.

Saqr Ghobash said the change was included in one of two laws aimed at helping expatriate workers. Both are finished and awaiting approval, he said.

The first, which will give extra protection to labourers, could be passed by the Cabinet and signed into law within two weeks.

The second, giving unemployed workers a longer grace period before their visas expire, should become law within two months.

Visas will be extended by between three and six months, depending on the worker’s job, but all nationalities will be included, the minister said. He was speaking on the sidelines of a seminar on labour and human rights in Dubai.

Expatriates currently have just one month to leave the country after their employment is terminated. Ministry officials singled out doctors as a profession likely to be granted the maximum extension.

Visa application fees will also be reduced for companies that hire unemployed workers already in the country.

The minister said the global financial crisis had created a need for more regulatory flexibility.

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“If workers found a job in the country, then it should be cheaper for the company to hire them than getting someone from abroad,” he said.

The draft labour law provides for the Ministry of Labour, along with the central bank and local exchange companies, to register and monitor the payment of all labourers’ salaries.

Around 500,000 labourers already receive their salary by bank transfer. However, the ministry wants to include every worker in the system, to keep track of late or non-payment of salaries.

“Banks have previously refused to open accounts and allow the transfer of salaries because it’s too costly for them when the salaries aren’t high,” said Mr Ghobash.

“Teaming up with the central bank and exchange centres, we can now know who is violating rights, even if it is one labourer who is not getting paid.”

The draft law also stipulates that the Ministry of Labour should be consulted over the construction of labour camps.

Current camps that do not meet the ministry’s standards will be closed.

Mr Ghobash held up new accommodation for labourers in Abu Dhabi as an example that developers needed to follow.

“We know there are problems, and we are not perfect,” he said. “But no one is.” The Government was aware of the areas where improvement was needed, and was “working in the right direction”.

“The challenge is to move from where we are to where we want to be.”

The ministry also said a pilot programme of UAE government labour offices in India and the Philippines would be made permanent, and expanded to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Ministry officials also intend to extend the midday break, currently practised only in July and August, to June.

While admitting that “no country is 100 per cent free of violations”, Mr Ghobash said any abuses of workers that were reported to the ministry would be dealt with.

“We don’t name and shame,” he said, but “we don’t allow the abuse of workers”.

“We don’t say they are not happening, but we don’t accept labour violations nor allow them.

“Companies who violate will also face stiffer fines under the new law.

“I guarantee the UAE will protect the rights of workers. The political will is there for change.”

Mr Ghobash challenged media reports claiming Dubai would lose 15 per cent of its labour force because of the financial crisis, although he admitted it was hard to put an exact figure on the number of expatriates who have left Dubai.

He said the difficulty was due to companies giving workers leave, which is not tracked by the visa authorities.

“Again it is a good sign that instead of losing a job, you are losing it only for a certain time,” he said.

According to ministry figures, there are 4.1 million workers in the private sector. In the six months to March 2009, 405,000 visas had been cancelled, and 662,000 new ones issued.

“During the last six months there has been no decline in the numbers of new labour cards issued,” he said.

A ministry insider said it was drawing up a new policy to reduce the number of unskilled workers in the UAE.

Low-skilled labourers were a burden on the country’s economy, the source said. “If you look at new projects, it’s the municipality that issues permits to companies.

“Generally they bring in low- skilled staff that the Government ends up subsidising.”

However, he admitted that such a change would be difficult. “The ministry’s hands are somewhat tied behind its back because it has no mandate on some issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ministry said that the inspection team that visited the Arabtec labour camp, which appeared on a BBC documentary earlier this month, would conclude its investigation this week.

shafez@thenational.ae

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