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Sharjah: register or leave

Posted by vmsalama on May 8, 2008


by Vivian Salama and Robert Ditcham

The National

Thousands of construction workers being housed in Sharjah may be relocated under a proposal requiring them to be employed by a company registered in the emirate, following several incidents of labour-related strife. 

In a proposed amendment to the labour law, companies that are not licensed to operate in Sharjah will be prevented from using the emirate to cheaply house workers they employ for jobs elsewhere in the country.

The affected companies will be forced to either obtain a trade licence through the Sharjah Municipality enabling their resident workers to stay, or find new accommodation for them in the UAE’s six other emirates.

By way of comparison, the fees for companies obtaining a licence from Hamriyah Free Zone in Sharjah range from Dh12,000 (US$3,260) for a general trading licence to Dh2,750 for an industrial, commercial or service licence.

Two senior members of the Sharjah Government confirmed that the law was in the final stages of approval and just weeks away from coming into effect. 

They said they were pursuing the amendment to the current legislation to improve law and order following a series of protests and violent skirmishes over the rising cost of living. 

“Most of the companies are in Dubai, but the workers live in Sharjah,” said Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed, chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. “The companies will be forced to either register their workers in Sharjah or find new accommodation in Dubai or the other emirates.

“If anything happens, it is usually Sharjah to blame,” said Sheikh Sultan, who added that the number of workers living in the emirate greatly outweighed the number of police officers available to contain labour protests. 

However, the move would be unpopular with workers who commuted from Sharjah to escape Dubai’s high rental rates, said Burhan Turkmani, the general manager of the Dubai-based Al Rabiah Trading company, a food importer.

“Sixty per cent of my employees live in Sharjah,” he said. “It’s far too expensive for certain employees to live in Dubai.

“These people, they live there, they spend much of their income in Sharjah, their children go to school in Sharjah, and they only go to Dubai to work. It may be a bit harsh. Food prices and the cost of living are going up, so people are suffering as it is.”

With a more affordable cost of living than Dubai and lower operating costs for worker compounds, Sharjah has attracted thousands of construction labourers. Many are employed in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, where construction is expanding rapidly.

In recent months, Sharjah has been rocked by violent protests. 

In April, more than 600 Asian labourers were arrested after a protest in the Al Nahda district. Workers from the Tiger contracting company attacked police with stones and bricks from an upper storey of a building under construction, the emirates news agency WAM reported.

Weeks earlier, about 1,500 rioting workers set alight management offices in a labour camp, clashing with police and officials.

Shehab el Orabi, the senior development manager at the Waterfront real estate project in Dubai, said he understood Sharjah’s motive for amending its labour law.

“I fully agree with them. Why would I have to take care of problems arising from labour camps there if they [workers] were not even working in Sharjah or contributing to the local economy?”

Mr Orabi said implementation of the law would likely encourage companies to build more modern accommodation facilities in proximity to the places that the men worked, thereby cutting the travel time to work and reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

About 250,000 vehicles travelled through Sharjah every day to locations outside the emirate, 50,000 of which were trucks, Sharjah officials have reported. 

Mr Orabi said construction companies required to remove their workers from Sharjah would seek to build new sites or lease accommodation at existing facilities. This would create a strong demand for sites such as Nakheel’s Omran worker housing project in Dubai, which had the capacity to house 60,000 workers, he said.




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