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Asian labourers work at the construction site of a track for the Dubai Metro last year
Asian labourers work at the construction site of a track for the Dubai Metro last year. AFP

Alarm over workers to Emirates

Cambodian labourers may soon be recruited to construction sites in the United Arab Emirates, where conditions are described as “tragic” by human rights groups.

The Lebanon-based company that would hire the workers under the prospective scheme, Agostine & Raphael Group, is run by Middle Eastern tycoon Kamal Agostine, who also serves as the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism’s official envoy to the Middle East and Gulf Cooperation Council.

On Friday, Agostine met with Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng in Phnom Penh to hammer out the details of a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which looks likely to be finalised in the near future.

“I held discussions with Mr Kamal J Agostine,” Sam Heng said on Friday. “He will start a new project to create a private recruitment firm in Dubai in order to facilitate sending Cambodian workers to the United Arab Emirates [UAE].

“He [Agostine] said Cambodian workers would be paid $300 per month, with other assurances. The UAE is the kind of country that is progressive in all sectors. It is a chance for Cambodian workers to work in the UAE. We need to sign the MoU first,” he said.

Details of the plan are still sketchy, and Agostine yesterday declined to comment in an email sent to the Post, saying that he could not talk about the details until the agreement had been signed with the Cambodian government.

“We are in the process of preparing such an MoU, but meanwhile we can’t now reveal it before further discussions between us and the ministry,” Agostine wrote.

Agostine is also a business associate of Cambodian tycoon Soth Sambath. The two multimillionaires jointly constructed the 361-hectare Angkor Hills City, which began construction in 2010, and will provide rich visitors with apartments, a spa and an 18-hole golf course.

Heng Sour, spokesman at the Ministry of Labour, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Friday’s meeting came a day after a report by the Nepalese rights group Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee said at least 400 Nepalese workers had died on construction sites in Qatar as the UAE’s next-door neighbour prepares for the World Cup in 2022.

Conditions for Asian migrant workers in the region are widely understood to be dire, with local regulations heavily favouring companies’ rights to use cheap, disposable labour over the rights of workers to enjoy an acceptable standard of living.

Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch researcher for the Gulf countries, said yesterday that the Gulf states, including the UAE, “maintain a system that effectively facilitates forced labour”.

“There have been huge numbers of deaths in the construction sector for decades. It happens because workers have their passports confiscated, large recruitment fees are common, they are subject to a system called kafala, there are no trade unions, it’s difficult to access the justice system,” he said.

Kafala, a legal system where firms “sponsor” their workers, has been criticised by human rights groups for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of the unregulated migrant labour sector.

“Effectively, [companies] are immune from prosecution. Laws exist but they are not properly enforced. There have been many cases where workers have not been paid for a year,” McGeehan said.

He added that Agostine could be reaching out to Cambodia as a new source of labour for the UAE because the willingness of workers to go to the Gulf states had dropped after hearing the “horror stories”.

“It’s a market, pure and simple. The poorer the sending state, the fewer regulations in place, and the more keen the Gulf state is to take you,” he said. “It’s a race to the bottom to see who can undercut each other.

“The tragedy is that the Gulf states could create an equitable system and lift Cambodians out of poverty. But Cambodians going there can expect to have their passports confiscated, perhaps be paid less than they were promised, work extremely long hours.… I hope the MOU means they don’t have to pay significant recruitment fees, because then they can’t leave.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID

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