Company executives will find their names on a sheet of shame published by the government if they don’t start paying wages to their laborers, the Labor Ministry announced Tuesday.
Many construction workers have taken to the streets here to protest months of lapses in their wages in a country enjoying one of the world’s great building booms.
Labor Undersecretary Khalid Alkhazraji said the Labor Ministry’s new policy was meant to shame companies and their owners into paying workers on time.
Alkhazraji said the ongoing protests — which have seen thousands of angry laborers block highways and busy streets — was damaging the image of one of the Middle East’s most prosperous countries.
“We are very concerned about our country’s reputation,” Alkhazraji said in a warning to the owners of the Emirates large building firms. “If they don’t care about our country’s reputation, we don’t care about their reputation.”
The announcement was significant because the offenders include some of the Emirates’ top companies, which are owned by members of the royal family. They have been exempt from public or media criticism.
Alkhazraji told The Associated Press that in most cases companies had fallen behind in wage payments because they took on projects for which they hadn’t arranged sufficient financing.
By the Labor Ministry’s count, unpaid workers have organized 18 strikes this year, involving more than 10,000 workers, Alkhazraji said.
“Any worker who doesn’t get paid should go on strike,” said a 33-year-old Indian man waiting outside the Labor section of Dubai’s courthouse on Monday. He gave his name only as Zia for fear of being fired and deported for speaking to a reporter. “You have to go on strike, because it is successful.”
Migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere have poured into the Emirates in recent years, with almost 1 million working as unskilled laborers building the skyscrapers and villas.
Last year 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. They tend to live in squalid camps and must work in extreme heat.
The Emirates has been cited by the State Department and Human Rights Watch for exploiting migrant workers, including women and children. They tend to live in squalid camps and must work in extreme heat.
The Labor Ministry, recognizing the valid complaints of workers, has levied a fine against one company, Al Hamed Development and Construction of Abu Dhabi. It has been banned from hiring foreign workers. The same treatment is in store for other companies that fail to pay on time, Alkhazraji said.
“We as a government encourage them to speak out if there is a problem. We support them. We stand beside them,” the Labor undersecretary said.
The government is eager to upgrade labor standards that have become a key issue in free trade negotiations with the United States. The Emirates hopes to sign a trade pact like the ones signed between Washington and Israel, Jordan and Bahrain, and on Monday, with neighboring Oman.
Holding up a trade deal are issues that include giving workers the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively. Alkhazraji acknowledged that trade unions could have huge economic consequences for the country, perhaps slowing the building boom and causing prices to jump.
“We’re working toward it,” Alkhazraji said. “You cannot ratify these things all at once. We need time to prepare the ground.”