What can be done to improve the lives of migrant construction workers?

January 12, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

What can be done to improve the wages and conditions of the millions of migrant workers who flock to the Gulf States from South Asia? I recently had a fascinating discussion with a UK construction entrepreneur working in the Gulf States on this.
According to the construction guy, there are now nearly $2 trillion worth of major projects Dubai labourannounced or started in the wider Gulf region. Many of Britain’s leading engineering consultancies, construction firms, law firms, management consultancies, project finance specialists and insurance companies are active there.

Construction labour demand is projected to double within five years. In the next 20 years, up to 30 million individuals may participate in the Gulf Cooperation Council construction industry. This will be the largest movement of people across borders in search of work in human history. The huge demand for labour raises a host of issues including:
· Sourcing the additional labour at a time of rising labour demand in the Indian subcontinent,
· Accommodating the huge increases in migrant workers arriving in the Gulf.
· Managing the additional numbers of construction workers. This raises issues of pay, conditions and representation which are becoming increasingly sensitive for the government of India and other countries that supply labour to the GCC, For example, many migrants borrow heavily from local loan sharks to pay an up front fee to recruiters, which is then paid off from remittances.
· How are migrants treated both in work, and after their contract ends (or in the case of Dubai, recently) is prematurely curtailed? Does anyone help them return home?
· Training. Many migrants arrive with no experience of working on a building site, creating risks both to themselves and building quality.

The idea we were discussing involves the UK developing some kind of construction industry partnership with the United Arab Emirates that could in due course be extended to encompass all the countries of the GCC, the wider Gulf and other Middle East economies. This would look at a whole range of business development issues, including migrant labour.

DubaiLaborersThis idea sounded very familiar from some work I’ve previously done on labour rights in the supply chains of clothing companies and supermarkets. About ten years ago, a group of UK NGOs got together with international trade unions and supermarket and garment companies like Sainsburys and Marks & Spencer and set up a ‘multistakeholder initiative’ (urgh) called the Ethical Trading Initiative. It’s still going and has become a place where some serious work goes on in finding ways to improve labour standards in incredibly fragmented global supply chains. Thorny issues include how to independently monitor compliance with labour standards, how to make sure last minute orders don’t push suppliers into exploiting their labour force, how to promote labour rights in China, and how to extend them to the informal sector, such as homeworkers.

Maybe it’s time to set up an Ethical Construction Initiative (ECI). The stakeholders could include construction companies, governments (UK, Gulf, South Asia), NGOs and international building workers’ unions or migrant workers organizations. As with ETI, it could be financed by a combination of government grants and membership fees from construction companies

What would it do? For starters, it could agree a code of conduct based on existing international agreements on migrant labour, develop systems to monitor compliance, establish a register of code-compliant recruitment agencies, conduct pilot programmes on other issues to develop best practice and lobby for new regulation and/or enforcement of existing regulation in the Gulf states and source countries.

One big plus would be that if offers a way in to work on the issue of migration, a huge development issue that has largely failed to register with NGOs and development thinkers. Anyone know of any similar initiatives that an ECI could learn from?