The construction sector in the Middle East is dominated by manual laborers who are largely low-skilled migrant workers, from Asia and Africa. These workers benefit from opportunities to earn income that offers the chance of improved livelihoods for themselves and their families. However, they also potentially face risks relating to flawed recruitment, late payment of wages, dangerous working and living conditions and may have limited access to effective dispute resolution. Both in the Middle East and other parts of the world, such factors can leave low-skilled construction workers vulnerable to labour exploitation (including forced labour) and impede the efficiency, as well as good reputation, of the construction industry.
As a number of studies have recently dealt with the challenge of eliminating recruitment debt, this paper will focus on two other key issues facing governments, employers and workers in the Middle East – (i) late or non-payment of wages and (ii) accidents at work that could lead to permanent disability or even death.
This paper explores the changes that have taken place over the past few decades in the way in which workers are employed in the construction industry. Construction contractors’ search for greater flexibility in the employment of labour than is allowed under the sponsorship system has led to extensive subcontracting and to the outsourcing of labour requirements to labour supply companies.
On the one hand, these changes have fragmented the relationship between the clients and contractors
commissioning the work at the top of the supply chain and the workers who are often at the bottom of the chain. One result of which is that it can take many months for interim payments to reach the immediate employers of the workers, which are then used to pay wages. The changes also mean that construction workers working side by side on a construction site are each employed by one of a multitude of companies, under widely variable terms and conditions, and with limited regulation and oversight.
As most of these companies are small, with limited capital and restricted human resource management capacity, recourse to remedy in cases of delayed or non-payment of wages, or injury at work, may be virtually non-existent.
Other countries in the world also have to tackle the problem of this ‘flexibilization’ in the construction industry and important lessons have been learnt, which are analyzed in the paper and presented for consideration by governments in region, particularly the Gulf sub-region. The introduction of new, innovative approaches to regulating the labour market, not only helps to protect migrant workers from abuse, but also improves the efficiency of the construction industry.