Prol-Position on the Middle East, migration and workers' struggles, mostly in the construction industry.
In the last months there have been various struggles of Asian workers in the oil-producing countries, mainly in the construction sector. The construction and the domestic sector are two of the main sectors of global proletarian migration, also due to the very nature of their product, which can not be re-located to the so-called low wage countries. The fact that workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka struck together during some of the conflicts shows their importance for a new class composition. Their struggles already had a noticeable impact on the labour relations in several countries of the Middle East, Arab Gulf and other oil-producing regions, e.g. governments having felt obliged to change labour laws according to ‘international standards’ and to officially rebuke and black-list companies for retarding wage payments. In Azerbaijan the wage increase obtained by the migrant proletarians instigated the local oil workers to strike for higher salaries themselves. Struggles of Filipino and other Asian workers in Iraq disrupted accommodation and catering of the US troops. All in all, these struggles take place in some of the global capitalist hot spots and might be able to inspire the workers struggles in the various countries of origin. In the following we try to give a broad overview on some of the conflict zones.
General situation in the Arab Gulf countries
Thirty-five million people live in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.) Of these, 13 million or 37 percent are foreign-born workers and their families. In the United Arab Emirates, foreign labourers make up around 85 percent of the four million people. In 2004 alone, Alkhazraji said the government issued 500,000 visas for incoming workers - a 20 percent increase in the country's work force. Nearly 98 percent of private-sector workers in the Emirates are foreigners. In the overall population, expatriates far outnumber local Arabs. In the flashy emirate of Dubai, foreigners make up more than 80 percent of the city's 1.5 million residents.
While the migrants in the states of the GCC reportedly send some $30 billion home annually and their earnings represent an important source of foreign exchange for a number of Asian and African governments, more than half of them earn a monthly wage of less than US$400. Without rights in a foreign land and generally with no or poor Arab language skills, migrants are often forced to work long working-hours. Another source of abuse is the indenture-style relations that foreign-workers often enter into with labour-recruitment companies. Workers from overseas are often recruited by specialised agencies or "sponsors" directly involved with the local employers. Agencies frequently take commissions from the immigrant workers that amount to considerable sums, depending on the nature of the job. When asked about the visa procedure, Mani, an Indian employed in Oman said, "I had to pay 800 Omani Riyals (US$2,078) to my sponsor to get my papers and visa done. And after two years, I have to pay another 110 Riyals (US$286) to renew my visa. There are instances where some people, who were unable to make that payment initially, pay nearly half of their monthly salary to their sponsors directly as a bond." In Oman, Indian-born workers make up half of the country's 1 million overseas workers. Salaries for overseas workers are known to be far less than for Omani nationals, though still from two to five times higher than for the equivalent job in India. Asked about the working conditions Mani added, "I earn 70 Riyals (US$182) a month. I don't have to pay for accommodation and transport since I have got a small room where I work. Thinking of those who have to work the same amount of hours in the hot sun of 40-50 C° on construction sites for just 45-65 Riyals (US$116-$170), I consider myself having a bit more luck.'
These conditions let to an increase of conflicts. According to official figures from the United Arab Emirates’ Labour Ministry, there were 41 cases of labour disputes reported during the last months of 2005. The Ministry received 5,486 complaints, in 2005, from workers against employers over non-payment of wages. In Dubai the unpaid migrant workers have organized 18 strikes in 2005, involving more than 10,000 workers. The Labour Ministry of the UAE felt obliged to announce a black-list of employers in October 2005. The announcement was significant because the offenders include some of the Emirates' top companies, which are owned by members of the royal family. The Labour Minister said the ongoing protests - which have seen thousands of angry labourers block highways and busy streets - was damaging the image of one of the Middle East's most prosperous countries. "The labour strikes are the warning bell that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had long ago cautioned Gulf countries from," ILO country representative in Kuwait, Thabet al-Harun, told in a press conference. On the background of a rising militancy of the workers, the political class in the Gulf countries become convinced of the necessity of modern conflict management: The Saudi Shura (consultative) Council has issued a law allowing "workers committees," Harun said, while Oman has told the ILO it plans to allow trade unions. And Qatar introduced a law last year granting workers the right to form trade unions. But the United Arab Emirates still does not allow them. Kuwait's social affairs and labour minister, Faisal al-Hajji, said on Monday he had recommended to the cabinet the introduction of a minimum wage for foreign workers on government contracts.
Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Filipino and Nepalese construction workers fight in Qatar
29th of August 2005: Six hundred immigrant construction workers in this tiny, oil-rich Gulf state have won a week-long strike against poor living conditions and the non-payment of wages. The management told the workers, mainly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Nepal, to end their strike or face deportation. But the workers refused to call off the strike until all their demands were accepted. A week's strike forced the employers to accept the demands. According to the AFP news agency: "600 workers, mostly Indian, went on strike against the poor living conditions and the non-payment of salaries for six months. This is a new development in a country like Qatar, which is completely dependent on foreign workers". Four other private Qatari companies are also involved in the dispute. This is the second action of this kind in Qatar in the last four months of 2005 and the first official labour dispute since the state amended its labour law last year.
Chinese workers' row in Qatar
9th of August 2005: Doha: Timely mediation by Qatari authorities has brought to an end a dispute between 237 striking Chinese construction workers and their Chinese employers, who had seconded them to a contracting company here early this year. The workers were on a flash stir for sometime protesting against non-payment of salaries and the way their wages were calculated. The workers arrived here in March this year, seconded to a local construction firm by the Chinese firm. A dispute with their employers arose recently and they struck work in protest. The workers chose four of their colleagues to represent them at the talks. Involved in the talks, apart from officials of the Chinese company and workers' representatives, were the departments of public prosecution and labour. It was decided that their employers would return 70 per cent of the money they had charged from them and put the sum in their bank accounts back home as also clear their immediate dues.
Indian workers repatriated from Qatar
25th of October 2005: Less than 36 hours after a group of Indian workers lodged a complaint with their country's embassy on Sunday against their employers, demanding to return home, they were repatriated by the company yesterday evening after being paid all dues. "This is the quickest ever repatriation of aggrieved workers as far as I know," said an Indian embassy official.
Thousands of migrant workers block main road in Dubai
19th of September 2005: AFP and Reuters news agencies described a demonstration of immigrant workers in Dubai, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE): "It is an incredible and unbelievable scene for a city like Dubai, the fastest emerging business capital in the Gulf. Some 1,000 workers virtually took over Shaikh Zayed road at the Nakheel Interchange and started walking towards Dubai right across the five lanes and the shoulder, chanting slogans against terrible living conditions and non-payment of salaries. Some workers are even carrying red clothes to use as flags. Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Filipino and Egyptian construction workers are protesting jointly against ill treatment from the employers". The workers marched from the company's site of Palm Island Project to the highway. As a result, tail backs over a kilometre in length occurred causing traffic delays and chaos. The 19 September protest was the biggest workers' demonstration, so far, in Dubai. The workers gathered from two different construction sites on the outskirts of the city. After holding a demonstration in front of the company offices they marched towards the city centre. They walked about four kilometres towards a main street in Dubai. The workers remained in the main street for three hours. They dispersed peacefully after successful negotiations with the Labour Ministry. The authorities assured the workers that their demands will be accepted and carried out in one month. The immigrant construction workers also formed a committee to make contacts with other construction workers. The ministry's staff negotiated with a number of workers' representatives and representatives of the company and verified the workers claims of the company's failure to pay the salaries of around 2,000 workers for the last four months. As a result of the protest the Indian government has blacklisted a UAE construction company after unpaid workers went on strike. Al Hamed, and the company's owners, has already been banned from recruiting new labour for the next six months after workers blocked Sheikh Zayed Road on Monday.
Unpaid construction workers survive on dates in the United Arab Emirates
23rd of September 2005: Dozens of unpaid construction workers have been on a protest at their labour camp for the past 10 days, cut off from the outside world and surviving on dates from a nearby farm. The men are refusing to work unless they are paid five months' wages. Fifteen other workers have already absconded, they said. The camp is outside Ajman (UAE), off a desert road, close to a date farm. Last Sunday, the 38 Indian, Nepalese and Pakistani men working for a labour supply company went to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to lodge a complaint, but could not afford to pay charges to a typing office. He said they had trouble communicating with labour officials, because the men speak regional languages. Only a handful speak broken Hindi and English.
Workers seek embassy's help over salary arrears in the United Arab Emirates
6th of September 2005: Around 100 workers of two construction firms in the Industrial Area of Ryyan gathered yesterday at the Indian embassy to seek its intervention over their mounting salary arrears. staying away from one of the company's major sites in Rayyan since the last week of July. The company employs a sizeable number of Nepalese and some Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Sudanese and Pakistanis.
Fijian contract workers strike in Kuwait
23rd of May 2005: At least 200 Fijians signed up by Lolohea's Meridian Services Agency (LMSA) to work in Kuwait began strike action on May 23 over a pay dispute. Sent to Kuwait four months ago to work mainly as truck drivers, they have not been employed and are receiving a "training wage" which is much lower than what they were promised and have had to find work elsewhere. LMSA has signed up over 15,000 Fijians who are mainly employed in the Middle East. They are charged between $US90 and $180 for each application. Many, however, have returned to their rural homes without receiving any work. Expatriate Fijian workers send over $180 million home each year.
Wage rise of migrant oil workers in Azerbaijan instigate local work-force to strike
3rd of December 2005: More than 1,000 local workers employed by McDermott, a leading US oil services company in Azerbaijan, renewed a strike on November 29 to protest low wages, discrimination and poor working conditions. The action ended late in the evening after McDermott management agreed to raise wages and meet demands for health insurance, but the long-term effects promise to linger on. The two-day strike is the first serious protest action by local employees of foreign companies operating in Azerbaijan, and has raised concerns about copycat actions throughout the country's strategic energy industry. The action follows a one-day strike on November 22 that saw workers briefly take control of McDermott's seaside facility 20 kilometres south of Baku. Later the same day, the strike was suspended. McDermott constructs pipelines and builds oil rigs for British Petroleum (BP), the head of a group of Western companies building a major oil export pipeline for Azerbaijan from the Caspian Sea. The company, which employs more than 2,500 people, is BP's biggest contractor in Azerbaijan. The strike reportedly brought work at the company to a complete halt. In addition to roughly 1,600 local employees, McDermott employs more than 500 foreign labourers from India, the Philippines and elsewhere. A 17.5 percent increase in salaries for McDermott's foreign employees at the beginning of November motivated local workers to ask for a 15-20 percent increase in their own pay, strikers said. One striker complained about an uneven distribution of pay between similarly qualified foreign and Azerbaijani workers. "Without giving any reason, the salaries of local workers in McDermott have been reduced 50 percent since October 1, 2005, and now we get $250-$300 per month," said Shakhkamal Bagirov. "Foreign workers who have the same qualifications are getting several times more." Local workers also say they are treated as second-tier employees. Striking workers told that foreigners from India and the Philippines or other countries eat in separate rooms from Azerbaijani workers and are served better quality food. Foreign workers "enjoy all kinds of respect here," the strikers said. The local press states that foreign labourers would earn "about 2,000 US-dollars" per month, which seems rather ill-informed or propaganda. Under the terms of an agreement reached between workers and management on the afternoon of November 29, local employees will receive a 20 percent salary increase by December 1. Some non-governmental organization representatives have forecast that strikes could be duplicated on other Azerbaijani pipeline construction projects if workers' demands are met. One foreign oil company senior manager, who asked not to be named, told that the Azerbaijani government unofficially encourages foreign oil companies to hire foreign workers. "There is a reason for that. Most of the contracts will expire soon. For example, the contract of McDermott with BP expires in the first half of 2006 and all of McDermott's employees would lose their jobs. A foreign worker will just leave the country after that and will not create any problems for the government, unlike his Azeri colleagues. So, the fewer potential unemployed [people] in the country, the better for the government," the source said. Sabit Bagirov admits that such a problem exists. More than 12,000 local workers could lose their jobs over the next four years in the oil industry, he said, as construction of oil and gas pipelines and oil rigs comes to a close. "It will be [a] tough problem for the government," Bagirov told Day.az. "These people got used to get relatively high salaries and it will be difficult to them to find equal jobs. It will create some social tension in the country and the government must start [to] think about it now."
800 workers from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal strike at US military-camp in Iraq
26th of May 2005: Some 300 Filipinos employed at a US military camp in Iraq went on strike to protest poor working conditions, at least 500 workers from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal joined the strike. The workers, under contract with Prime Projects International (PPI) and Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), are based at Camp Cooke in the province of Taji. KBR is a subsidiary of Halliburton Companies, which was once headed by US Vice President Dick Cheney. Despite a travel ban to Iraq, the Philippines is the biggest supplier of manpower for US-led coalition forces, about 6,000 Filipinos are working in various camps. As a result of the strike’s deadlock, the company said it is ready to prepare the return of the workers to the Philippines aboard two chartered flights via Dubai International Airport.
Soliman left his family in the Philippines for what sounded like a sure thing -- a job as a warehouse worker at Camp Anaconda in Iraq. His new employer, Prime Projects International (PPI) of Dubai, is a major, but low- profile, subcontractor to Halliburton's multi-billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon to provide support services to U.S. forces. But Soliman wouldn't be making anything near the salaries -- starting $80,000 a year and often topping $100,000 -- that Halliburton's engineering and construction unit, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) pays to the truck drivers, construction workers, office workers, and other labourers it recruits from the United States. Instead, the 35-year-old father of two anticipated $615 a month -- including overtime. For a 40-hour work week, that would be just over $3 an hour. But for the 12-hour day, seven-day week that Soliman says was standard for him and many contractor employees in Iraq, he actually earned $1.56 an hour. The average annual income in Manila is $4,384. Tens of thousands of such (Third Country Nationals) TCN labourers have helped set new records for the largest civilian workforce ever hired in support of a U.S. war. While the exact number of TCNs working in Iraq is uncertain, a rough estimate can be gleaned from Halliburton's own numbers, which indicate that TCNs make up 35,000 of KBR's 48,000 workers in Iraq employed under sweeping contract for military support. Adding to the dangers and hardships of a war zone, some TCNs complain publicly about not being paid the wages they expected. Others say their employers use "bait-and-switch" tactics: recruiting them for jobs in Kuwait or other Middle Eastern countries and then pressuring them to go to Iraq. All of these problems have resulted in labour disputes, strikes and on-the-job protests.
After the protest: US-subcontractor KBR in Iraq replaces Asian workers by Africans
1st of December 2005: The U.S. military has paid Halliburton subsidiary KBR about $12 billion so far for so-called logistics support to U.S. military personnel in Iraq, the largest contract of its kind ever. KBR in turn hires that work out entirely to subcontractors whose job it is to recruit, transport, house, feed and pay "third-country" nationals to stock, prepare, serve and clean up at the dining facilities at 43 bases across Iraq.
That is what brought around 770 workers from Sierra Leone, Africa, to Iraq in July to work for ESS Support Services Worldwide, A British-based food service company specializing in "remote site, defense and off-shore locations." For this they are paid $150 a month, roughly 45 cents an hour. Their housing -- three to a standard size trailer -- laundry, food and uniforms are provided free. Previous to the Sierra Leone contract, ESS employed workers from Sri Lanka who were paid about $400 a month for the same work. Kelly said the monthly wage offered to the Sierra Leoneans is far higher than what they would earn at home. According to the Sierra Leone worker, some 7,000 candidates showed up to apply for the 750 jobs ESS offered in June 2005. Sierra Leone is an extremely poor country, with a market-based economy and a per capita income of less than $100 per year. For the last decade a violent insurgency has destroyed the local economy. The government approved a minimum wage of about $4 a week for a 40-hour work week, according to the State Department's 2004 human rights report. "The catalyst for having to go to Sierra Leone to recruit in the first was that the respective governments of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines have all put an official ban on their nationals working or traveling in Iraq.
Chinese Workers in Israel strike for unpaid wages
5th of July 2005: Around 200 Chinese workers sat down in protest outside the offices of Malibu-Israel, the construction company that had employed them, on July 5, reported Kav La'Oved's August 2005 e-news. They insisted that they would not move until a company representative came to negotiate with them on their demand for payment of wages due for the month of May. Israel's law on the employment of migrant workers such as these Chinese has changed recently. Instead of being hired directly by a construction company, they should now be employed by a manpower agency that will serve as a mediator. The company is meant to pay the workers' wages to the agency, which then pays the workers. By placing greater distance between the workers and the companies that are directly using their labour, they make action to seek redress more complicated, as it is less obvious to whom workers should make representations. In this case, the Chinese workers saw Malibu-Israel as the right address for their protest. The errant company promised to pay the manpower agency, and the Chinese workers returned to their jobs. A Central Bureau of Statistics press release put the total number of migrant workers at the end of the year at 188,000, of whom 91,500 held valid work permits. During 2004, 34,000 had entered Israel legally, with permits, and 41,000 had been deported or left voluntarily. The percentage breakdown for the workers' countries of origin was: Thailand (31 percent), The Philippines (19 percent), Romania (14 percent), China (9 percent), former Soviet Union (9 percent), Turkey (4 percent), India (3 percent) and Bulgaria (3 percent). This suggests that the trend toward increasing employment of workers from East and Southeast Asia continues. Their proportion among the foreign workers in Israel in 2001 was around 10 percent.
Thai workers in Israel - The bonds of silence
May 2005: Summary of detailed article from Israeli workers centre (http://www.kavlaoved.org): Over the past few months shocking and disturbing images of Thai workers sleeping in chicken coops, metal barrels, and underground tunnels have appeared on TV almost once a week. In 2004 the Israeli government issued 26,000 work permits in agriculture. Only 24,800 were actually used by farmers. The majority of these workers are Thai. During the year 10,000 Thai workers entered Israel legally, and a similar number left or were deported.
Almost all Thai workers arrive in Israel with a valid, government issued visa and work permit. Work termination for any reason entails an immediate loss of legal status. It is very difficult for Thai workers to obtain assistance because most work in rural communities, do not speak English, and receive little to no help from the Thai Embassy. Thai workers are employed in peripheral agricultural communities far from major cities. There is also a language barrier because most Thai workers speak neither Hebrew nor English.
Prior to 2003, the NGO Kav LaOved was rarely approached by Thai workers and therefore little was known about the employment conditions and problems faced by the Thai migrant worker community in Israel. Although Kav LaOved knew that the Thai workers were not receiving all that was legally owed them - the typical rate is about 11-12 Shekels (around $2.5) per hour, and 13-15 shekels per overtime hour, as opposed to a minimum of almost 18 Shekels ($4) per hour, and a 25%-50% increase for overtime -, Kav LaOved assumed that they were being paid regularly.
Unlike in the homecare and construction migrant worker employment sectors, there is minimal mobility within the migrant worker agricultural employment sector. This limited mobility combined with the random fashion in which migrant agricultural workers are terminated leaves the Thai workers without alternative employment opportunities. Rather than complain, Thai workers continue to work for their employers despite the extreme violation of their rights through: non-payment of wages, payment of wages below minimum wage, holding of passports (very common, even though illegal), underpaid overtime, and work with unprotected toxic materials.
Placement agencies prefer to bring new workers from Thailand, profiting from the commission which new workers are forced to pay. Recent changes in Israeli law allow foreign workers to stay in Israel for up to 5 years. This has resulted in increased mediation fees of up to $7,000. Most workers cannot afford to pay the mediation fee upfront, and are therefore forced to take loans and use their first year salary to pay the mediation fee, which accrues interest. Unfortunately, some employment agencies provide workers who have paid high fees, expecting to work for 5 year, with work for only one or two years. After one or two years, these workers wind up either "on the run" trying to find new unauthorized employment or deported against their will. The government has declared a "closed sky" policy in the agriculture sector. This policy sets a procedure: employers are allowed to bring new workers into the country only if, after one month of searching, they cannot satisfy their employment needs with available migrant workers currently in prison, awaiting deportation. It seems as though the immigration police prefers to deport detainees and fulfil their government-set deportation quotas over finding new jobs for migrants already in Israel.
The information for this article was taken from different internet sources, among them: www.socialistworld.net, www.gulf-times.com, www.thepeninsulaqatar.com, www. khaleejtimes.com, www.daijiworld.com, www.chinaworker.org, newpaper.asia1.com.sg, www.arabnews.com, www.jang.com.pk, www.eurasianet.org, www.bakutoday.net, www.philstar.com, www.wsws.org, www.upi.com, www.wrmea.com.