As many as 1,500 striking South Asian laborers marched through the streets of Sharjah emirate on Saturday, demanding salaries that they say have gone unpaid for as long as four months. Construction workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal gathered outside the Sharjah Department of Labor and Social Affairs to demand back pay, improvements in living conditions and a hike in wages that run below US$1 per hour.
"We are three-and-a-half months with no salary," said a 29-year-old welder who gave only his first name, Kumar, for fear of being fired and deported for speaking to the press. "How can we live on this?" Their employer, The Perfect Group, an Emirates-based construction and services firm, negotiated until midnight Friday with laborers who had refused to work for four days, said Sharjah-based owner Kareem Abdullah.
Negotiations failed when company officials refused to raise salaries, Abdullah said. He disputed workers' claims that the company had withheld salaries, saying that back wages owed amount to no more than one month's pay. "You can't run the company how the workers want, you can only run the company how you want," Abdullah told The Associated Press. "We have no problem if people want to stop working. Give us your resignation and we will let you depart back to your countries. We will pay every penny that is owed."
Abdullah said he has turned negotiations over to company lawyers who are working out a strike-ending deal with the labor ministries in Sharjah and Dubai. In Sharjah on Saturday, workers' representatives presented a petition to labor officials after police forced protesters from the streets into a nearby city park. Around 1 million low-wage laborers from South Asia are providing the muscle behind a rampant building boom that has studded the Emirates with glittering skyscrapers and shopping malls.
In the flashy emirate of Dubai, foreigners make up more than 80 percent of the city's 1.5 million residents. Laborers imported on strict contracts tend to live in squalid desert camps and toil in extreme heat, while wealthy expatriates enjoy some of the world's most luxurious accommodations, reports the AP. N.U.