We need to talk about the safety of construction workers in the Gulf

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Apr 28 2015

Today marks the ILO’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work. One person dies every 15 seconds globally from a workplace accident, or 2.3 million per year according to ILO data.

It's an opportune moment to think about the situation in the Gulf states, which boast some of the most ambitious infrastructure projects and architecture in the world, but have a dire record on construction worker safety. Qatar, which is undergoing a major construction boom, has racked up a high level of worker fatalities. Although it is difficult to get clarity on the actual number of deaths, a report by The Guardian and AFP suggests that 450 Indian nationals died in the country in 2012-3, with many of these thought to be workers in the construction sector.

Too many building sites in the Gulf have become graveyards for workers. The issue  is by no means a new one; HRW wrote a detailed report titled 'building towers, cheating workers' back in 2006 which called attention to abusive behaviour and dangerous conditions on the Middle East's building sites.

One of the major stumbling blocks to industry-wide action on worker safety is the fact that union activity of any kind is banned outright in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and heavily policed in Bahrain.

That was nearly 10 years ago, and today barely a week passes without a fresh report of worker fatalities. To give a few recent examples, an Asian construction worker died after being electrocuted while trying to connect a construction site to the grid in Ras al Khaimah in March, while workers in RAK rioted (a rare occurrence) after a colleague fell to his death at a building site in early April.

But while the body count continues to rise, the public conversation about practical solutions to the problem has been muted. Initiatives by governments and the private sector do exist, but so far most have been conservative in their scope and have not attempted to challenge the status quo.

Some early-stage discussions are currently taking place with construction companies in Qatar around the issue of worker safety, and there are early indications that “at least some” may be prepared to work with international unions to agree on new safety norms, an International Trades Union Congress spokesperson told Migrant-Rights.org.

One of the major stumbling blocks to industry-wide action on worker safety is the fact that union activity of any kind is banned outright in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and heavily policed in Bahrain, he said.

At one point the UAE had an industry-wide watchdog that worked to champion workers welfare and to debunk myths about the additional costs and expenses involved in making construction sites safer. BuildSafe UAE was launched in 2007 by a group of six construction companies, led by Bovis Lend Lease.  It also counted heavyweights in the construction industry among its members, including Halcrow and Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority. The organisation regularly spoke out against lax standards in the industry, collected data on fatalities and accidents, and provided safety alerts to subscribers.  According to reports in the trade press, in 2010 the group also called for more comprehensive legislation for worker protection in the GCC at both a national and regional level. They also reported that worker fatalities in Abu Dhabi had fallen by 50% between 2008 and 2009 as a result of better safety practices.

But BuildSafe UAE’s website no longer works, and the organization appears to no longer send out alerts.

“I don’t believe BuildSafe UAE exists anymore,” the editor of a well-known Abu Dhabi-based infrastructure magazine told Migrant-Rights.org, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re not aware of any GCC-wide safety initiative or regional body set up to deal with these things.”

According to the website of related organisation, BuildSafe South Africa, BuildSafe UAE ran from 2007 to 2010, when it appears that its chairman, Grahame McCaig left the Gulf for his native South Africa. BuildSafe SA could not be reached for comment.

International construction companies in the UAE are stepping up their efforts to improve workplace safety, and tend to bring best practices from their home countries, but the problem is that subcontractors are failing to implement safety measures,  the editor told Migrant-Rights.org.

There have been a handful of conferences and reports on workplace health and safety in the Middle East: the U.K.-based Institution of Occupational Safety and Health will hold its annual Middle East Conference in Dubai on April 29. The conference is now in its sixth year, and last year’s event dealt with topics including fire safety, best practices for businesses, the psychology of workplace safety, and managing liability for accidents.

A spokesperson for IOSH declined to comment on the topic of migrant worker safety in the Gulf and the organisation’s engagement with the issue when approached by Migrant-Rights.org.

Arcadis, the international building, design, engineering and consultancy services company, put out a report earlier in April looking into Middle East's record on workplace safety and practical solutions for improving the current situation. However, the company pulled the report shortly after it became available in the public domain. A spokesperson for Arcadis told Migrant-Rights.org that the report had been released in error, and that the company were not yet ready to go public with it. The report, they said, will be released officially at a later date, after they have reviewed their media strategy.

While there is clearly some good and useful work underway to improve workplace safety in the Gulf countries, the government and private sector both need to go further in order to cut the number of migrant workers dying on building sites.

There needs to be a better public conversation around the issue. Companies still appear to be hesitant to talk to openly even about positive steps that they have taken to make their workplaces safer. To give an example, Migrant-Rights.org is still searching for either a case study from a construction company that has implemented meaningful measures to make their building sites safer for workers, or an on-the-record comment on the issue. We remain keen to talk.

It's time for an industry-wide call-to-arms to end avoidable workplace deaths at Gulf building sites once and for all. But for that to happen companies need to start engaging in a more open dialogue with the media, with NGOs, and in fact, with each other, in order to bring about change. So far we don't see enough of this happening.

Who wants to break the deadly silence?

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East