Yemen Times –Having heard stories about construction workers who died in work-related accidents and uncompensated families, Sara Al-Zawqari, the Yemen Times Radio manager, and Sadeq Al-Wesabi, a freelance journalist based in Sana’a, decided to write a report about the work conditions of unregistered construction workers in Yemen. In collaboration with the Network of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, a five-month investigation was launched that led to both a report and a documentary. The first part of Al-Zawqari’s and Al-Wesabi’s report is published below. The second part will be published in the Yemen Times on Tuesday, Dec. 2.
Hajj Ahmad, who has been a construction worker for most of his life, fell off a scaffold in Nuqum area in the capital Sana’a four years ago. Once known for his strong body and lengthy experience, Ahmad is no longer able to carry himself, let alone the heavy construction materials he used to work with.
Originally from Al-Hada village in Dhamar governorate, Ahmad had been employed by contractors for 30 years. In all this time, he said he never signed a contract. “I was never provided with any safety equipment or was informed about their importance. I was not even given a helmet to protect my head from the sun’s heat,” Ahmad complained. What is worse, Ahmad’s last employer had him sign a document, promising to waive any benefits in case of getting injured. Ahmed said he only accepted these unfavorable work conditions due to the difficult financial situation he was in, and his dire need for employment.
According to statistics published by the Central Statistics Agency in 2013, about one million Yemenis are registered as construction workers and enjoy social security insurance. Unfortunately, Ahmad was not one of them. Since his contractor refused to reimburse him, Ahmad’s family had to borrow money to cover his medical expenses.
Unregistered workers like Ahmad are often poorly trained and are not provided with standard safety equipment by their employers. This last point constitutes a violation of article 113 in the Yemeni labor law, which stipulates that, “An employer who commissions any new enterprise shall ensure that it meets occupational safety and health requirements. The responsible ministry shall ensure compliance with appropriate occupational safety and health requirements and conditions.”
What works to Ahmad’s disadvantage is that the article’s conditions can only be enforced if a proper work contract was signed. His legal case is further complicated by article 4 of Yemen’s Social Security Law, which stipulates that “temporary and seasonal” workers are to be excluded from social security regulations.
Ahmad’s story is in no way unique. There are many unregistered workers in Yemen who have to work in hazardous work environments, operating machines they are not trained for, and being laid off as soon as they get injured. They lack any legal protection and social insurance. The families of those who died in work-related accidents are also being widely ignored by employers.
Majid Ahmed Zain, for example, died in his 30s in his home governorate of Hodeida, where he fell off a scaffold. When the criminal investigation team arrived at the scene they referred to the event as nothing more than “an act of God,” meaning an accident. Wael Ahmed Zain, the brother of the deceased, does not know what to do and where to complain. “The owner of the building gave us a sack of rice and a sack of flower as compensation,” he said. “We need mediators and money in order to follow up with the case, but we barely have enough money to live off.”
So far, no accurate statistics have been released that would list the number of unregistered workers in Yemen and the number of their injuries and deaths. Ali Dahaq, the national program coordinator of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Yemen, said the organization gets most of its data from the Ministry of Labor, which he explained does not have any accurate statistics on unregistered workers.
According to researcher and deputy manager of the Social Studies and Labor Research Center, Fatima Mashour, “There are no national surveys specifying the number of those [unregistered] workers and there are no qualitative studies determining the nature of the problems these workers suffer from.”
One of the few existing studies on unregistered workers is ten years old, published in 2004 by the General Federation of Yemeni Workers and the ILO. The field survey found that 89 percent of participants were working without a contract. The survey results also showed that 17 percent of participating unregistered workers sustained work-related injuries and that only three percent received compensation.
If anything, these numbers have gotten worse over time, Dahaq said. An increasing number of Yemenis, including highly qualified university graduates, are desperately looking for jobs—whether they come with a contract or not.
The government’s lacking inspections and arbitration committees
Azzam Salah, head of the parliament’s work force and social affairs committee, admits there is a lack in legislation regarding unregistered construction workers. He emphasized, however, that there is “real intention” inside parliament to include unregistered workers in the new labor law which is currently being discussed in cabinet.
While certainly looking good on paper, it is questionable to what extent new and better labor laws could actually be enforced. Already now, the government is lacking the resources required to properly implement its legal obligations in the field of labor. According to article 1 of Yemen’s labor law, “Inspections of workplaces shall be conducted by officials of the ministry and its offices. They shall be vested with judicial authority to apply the provisions of this law and the regulations and orders issued therein. They may, if necessary, call upon the services of experienced doctors, engineers, and technicians.”
In spite of existing laws, Dr. Ali Al-Nusairy, the undersecretary of the ministry, who is responsible for the sector of public labor relations, explains that the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor lacks the ability to inspect work sites. “The ministry barely inspects any of the registered construction sites. There are over 4,000 registered construction sites but only three inspection teams. One of them is based in Sana’a and includes 30 inspectors. The other two teams are allocated in other governorates.”
Not only is the ministry lacking the manpower to conduct large-scale inspections, it is also struggling to deal with all the complaints coming from unregistered workers.
According to article 129 of the labor law, which applies to both registered and unregistered workers, “Both parties to a dispute or their representatives shall hold a meeting to settle the dispute amicably through negotiations within a maximum period of one month. A record of the meeting, to be kept secret, shall be drawn up and signed by both parties.” The law further stipulates that, “Where no amicable settlement can be reached between the two parties to the dispute, the matter shall be referred to the ministry or a relevant ministry office which shall summon the parties with a view to settling the dispute within a period not exceeding two weeks.”
If a labor dispute is complicated and cannot be solved amicably, it is forwarded to the ministry’s arbitration committee which is specialized in labor disputes.
Just like other departments and sections of the ministry, its arbitration committee has limited resources at hand, with its offices lacking the most basic stationery and furniture.
Judge Abdulsalam Al-Samawi, the head of the ministry’ arbitration committee, explained, “In Sana’a there is only one arbitration committee to look into labor disputes. It is comprised of the mandated head of the committee and two members representing the worker and the employer respectively. This committee looks into dozens of labor cases daily.” The committee’s employees are being paid up to YR30,000 (less than $150) a month.
Overall, there are only six arbitration committees in Yemen, located in Sana’a, Hodeida, Taiz, Aden, Hadramout, and Ibb governorates. Given the shortage of committees, the team in Sana’a is frequently forced to accept cases from other governorates such as Hajja, Amran, Sa’ada, Al-Jawf, Marib, Al-Mahweet, and Dhamar.
“We do not have enough manpower or financial resources,” complained Al-Samawi. “We do not receive what a normal judge would get paid. Sometimes we hold 80 sessions in a single day. We have to work outside official work hours, sometimes we work at home. We do not even take our normal vacation days, because if we do, cases will pile up on us.”
The committee receives an annual budget of YR2,000,000 ($9,300) by the government. Al-Samawi, who has been working in labor arbitration committees since 1970, considers this amount to be far too small. In his view, labor cases are increasing in complexity each year due to the massive urbanization processes the country is undergoing.
A day spent with the arbitration committee, and interviews with several workers revealed that most are satisfied with the committee’s ruling which they deem to be fair.
Al-Samawi confirmed, “It is rare that we receive complaints. We have never seen any complaints from unregistered workers. All the complaints we received came from construction workers who worked with companies and institutions, holding work contracts.”
Some more well-off construction workers prefer a private lawyer over the one paid and offered by the committee. Fuad Al-Dubai is one of these private lawyers, who has been working with the labor arbitration committee for the past 15 years.
“There are some shortcomings in this committee, such as looking into more than one case at the same time and a lack of punctuality on the part of the secretaries,” he says. “Generally speaking, however, the committee does a good job considering they have inherited a heavy load of cases from the previous committees.”
Although unregistered workers are bereft of many basic labor laws, they nevertheless stand good chances in the arbitration committees. Many make reference to article 30 of the Yemeni labor law, which stipulates, “In the absence of a written contract, it shall be up to the worker to establish his rights by any admissible evidence.”
Lawyer Ameen Hajar explained, “If the injured worker did not have a contract he can use those who brought him to the hospital as witnesses. He could also use his medical records as evidence and file a complaint against his employer.”