In mid-May, while the cities of the United Arab Emirates continued their deconfinement, now finished, an Asian worker posted on Facebook a video of an extremely rare thing in the highly watched states of the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf: a protest movement. The images showed young migrants, gathered in the aisles of a labor camp on the edge of Abu Dhabi, to denounce the non-payment of their wages.
“It has been two months since our employer paid us, explained an Indian, in shorts and sandals, his face covered with a mask. Even if we receive food, we have a lot of problems, we can no longer charge our phones. This is why we are preventing the few people who still have work from going to work. “, he added, facing the metal door of the camp, kept closed.
The employer of these angry workers is AMB-Hertel, an Emirati subsidiary of the French multinational Altrad, champion of scaffolding, located in Montpellier. The group, which has 15,000 employees in the Gulf, is led by its founder, Mohed Altrad, 31e French fortune, candidate for mayor of Montpellier, who has just obtained, for the second round (June 28), the support of local environmentalists and leftists.
Alerted by a defense network for migrant workers, The world forwarded the video to Altrad’s communications directorate. The latter reacted by evoking “Slanderous statements”, from a “Very small minority of individuals”, “Which do not illustrate the truth of the facts”. However, the testimonies collected by The world Around twenty employees of the company, in the United Arab Emirates as well as in Qatar and Bahrain, where the French firm also has subsidiaries, corroborate the allegations made in the film.
” People are scared “
In addition to recurring wage suspensions, the health crisis has caused numerous contaminations among Altrad’s Asian staff – most often in an asymptomatic form – as well as a wave of layoffs. In the Gulf, the workforce of the Hérault company, world leader in the industrial services market, paid a heavy price in the fight against the Covid-19.
Salary suspensions are presented by AMB-Hertel, the UAE subsidiary of Altrad, as unpaid leave
Bibek (for security reasons, all the first names used in this article are pseudonyms), a 23-year-old Indian man was recruited in February by AMB-Hertel as a scaffold erector. Very quickly, the containment measures of the pandemic forced the company to stop its operations and Bibek found himself deprived of his salary (around 290 euros per month). “It’s been two months, he explains by WhatsApp, from the camp where he lives. In the past few days, I’ve been working a bit, but I’ve caught the Covid-19. I am isolated in a separate room, with other positive workers. There are many infected people in the camp. People are scared. “
Wage suspensions are presented by AMB-Hertel as unpaid leave. An Emirati decree, promulgated at the start of the crisis, allows companies to use such a measure, as long as their employees agree. Bibek and many of his colleagues have indeed signed an agreement to this effect. “We are new, my friends and I, here, says the worker from Kerala (southern India). I thought it was for a week or two, and that would solve all of our problems. We didn’t realize it would be for such a long time. “
“These unpaid leave agreements, of course it’s bogus. Nobody agrees “, fulminates Sitaram, another employee of AMB-Hertel. This 26-year-old Nepalese man has been living confined, without work and without pay, in another dormitory for Asian immigrants in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. ” I feel bad. I’ve been locked in my room for so long, he writes on WhatsApp. The canteen is closed. We are given meal packs, which are really not good. In theory, we can go shopping outside. But with what money ? We’ve been without pay for two months. Lots of scaffolders are going to be fired. ” UAE authorities have not responded to requests for a reaction from the World.
Five hundred kilometers further west, in the Emirate of Qatar, employees of Altrad Cape, the local subsidiary of the Montpellier-based company, are experiencing similar financial difficulties. This is the case of Dinesh, a Nepalese in his twenties. “ The company provides us with meals, but we have no salary and there are many of us in this situation. “, he laments. His colleague Jay Kumar agrees: “I have not been paid for three months. In the contract termination letter I received, I was only offered one month’s salary. ”
The Qatari government, solicited by The world, ensures that Altrad and its subsidiaries have paid all outstanding wages. While allocating to the banks an envelope of 824 million dollars (about 735 million euros) intended to help companies to pay their wages and their rents in this period of crisis, Doha, like Abu Dhabi, authorized the use of leave without pay upon simple “consent” of employees. “All our decisions are made in order to find a balance between the interests of our employees, our activity and the exceptional circumstances imposed by the coronavirus crisis”, pleads the management of Altrad.
“Altrad likes to think that as long as unpaid leave is co-signed by workers, then everything is legal, analyzes Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights activist based in Nepal. VSLike many other multinationals in the Gulf, the company takes advantage of the total absence of unions in this region to do pretty much what it wants. In France, such practices would not be accepted. But in the Gulf, with uneducated workers, among the most vulnerable in the world, everything passes. “
Each of these workers is subjected to a double pressure: that of his family, who could often not live without the nest egg that he is supposed to send him each month, and that of the creditor, who loaned him the money necessary for payment. from the agency that brought him to the Gulf. As part of its modern anti-slavery policy, Altrad claims to pay these costs itself. “We have zero tolerance on this subject”, says a communicator in the group.
However, given the complexity of the labor recruitment channels, these efforts do not prevent workers from also having to pay. “I paid 25,000 rupees [près de 300 euros] to an agent in India, says Nishant, an AMB-Hertel employee, who has not received a single full salary since arriving in Abu Dhabi in late February. My parents and three brothers depend on me for a living. They have a lot of problems. ” Like many of his colleagues, strapped for cash and exhausted, Nishant dreams of only one thing: to return to his country and forget his aborted migration to the Gulf.