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How civil engineers can help migrant workers in the Gulf

29 April 2019

Charlotte Broyd of Engineers Against Poverty says civil engineers can make a real difference to improving the lives of migrant construction workers in the Gulf, where wages are often paid late or not at all.

How civil engineers can help migrant workers in the Gulf
One of the root causes of late payment in the construction supply chain is flexible forms of employment and extensive sub-contracting and outsourcing

Late or non-payment of wages is one of the major risks facing migrant construction workers in many parts of the world. It’s particularly prominent in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – which all face issues regarding prompt payment in the construction sector.

Migrant workers often experience high levels of debt due to recruitment or other migration-associated fees – and in the GCC there are few possibilities of redress for migrants, which leaves them destitute and vulnerable to exploitation. In a recent report, Jill Wells of Engineers Against Poverty (EAP) proposes innovative policies and actions which could offer a preventative solution.

Addressing root causes

The report identifies one of the root causes of late payment in the construction supply chain as more flexible forms of employment and extensive sub-contracting and outsourcing.

Migrant workers are now far removed from clients and principal contractors at the top of the chain, with responsibility for direct payment of workers passed onto those in the lower tiers who are in a weaker position to ensure it.

Several measures adopted in the region to address the problem are reactive rather than preventative.

For example, the Wage Protection System adopted by all six GCC countries has brought payment to the forefront of the political agenda but doesn’t adequately ensure prompt cash flow.

In the UAE, for instance, its Wage Protection System saw sanctions issued if companies at the bottom of the chain didn’t pay workers on time, neglecting that these companies could simply not pay the workers if they themselves hadn’t received payment from tiers above.

Lessons from elsewhere

To offer pragmatic solutions to the issue, the report looks at innovative policies tried and tested around the world that require government action. Drawing on research previously carried out by EAP, the report makes assessments on the potential uptake and successful implementation of these policies in the Gulf region.

Of note is the role of statutory (rapid) adjudication in improving cash flow and which has benefits to all industry participants.

While there are various underlying reasons for payment delay, they invariably appear as disputes over items in payment applications. Statutory adjudication resolves this by dealing with disputes in real time.

The report also highlights the need to ban the practice of ‘pay when paid’. Doing so would provide much fairer terms to small and medium enterprises and subcontractors at the end of the supply chain, ensuring they’ll still be paid and can then pay their workers.

Agents of change

There’s also a clear role for industry stakeholders to apply pressure. Infrastructure clients could protect workers’ wages through the choice of companies with whom they engage, the terms and conditions specified in the tender process and approval of subcontractors appointed by principal contractors.

Civil engineering consultants that provide advice to clients can also help, advising on tender conditions and subcontractor approval as well as delivering important messages − including that the lowest price for a bid is not necessarily the best choice.

Taking action on prompt payment will not only protect the lives of migrant workers but it will also result in better quality of work being delivered on time and within budget. It should be in the best interest of clients, contractors and consultants, and will ensure a more profitable and robust sector.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (172 CE2) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Charlotte Broyd, Senior Communications Manager, CoST – the Infrastructure Transparency Initiative