June 9, 2011

A Very Very Long Story

This is a very, very long story about what happens when you're not rich, not white and are part of the underclass in Abu Dhabi. (And when I started writing this, several days ago, I was pretty agitated, as you will no doubt notice.)

The UAE is Orwellian in so many ways, but in this particular case, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

There are very specific labor laws here and for the most part they are designed to protect the employee. Many companies flout these laws with impunity, no matter the size of the company or the education level of the employee. For example, it is illegal to hold an employee's passport, but you won't find a single lower-class worker who has possession of his own passport. Managers tell them their passports are "safer" when the company keeps them. I've heard that it happens at a certain newspaper as well -- you are allowed your passport when it's time to take vacation, but if you don't return it upon arrival, you don't get paid. The keeping of passports is a way employers keep employees from absconding, among other things.

When we arrive, we all sign contracts. Companies are not allowed to change the terms of the contracts without the signature of an employee. But they do. All contracts are in English and Arabic -- and I can't say for certain that both say the same thing. Another example: A certain company has in its contract that its employees are entitled to a particular level of insurance. This year, I imagine in an effort to cut costs, the insurance level was reduced. That was a violation of the contract, but what were the employees to do?

To solve these problems, there is a Ministry of Labor and a Labor Court. Anyone has the right to file a complaint against his company. But that is an intimidating concept for most people, especially those who don't speak English or Arabic well, or those who can't read. And a large part of the population falls into that category. I know I would be reluctant to get tangled in the system.

Filing a complaint doesn't cost anything (other than a small copy fee) to file, but most people don't know that. And the folks at the labor office aren't very free with that information. It is not unusual for them to tell you that it is very expensive and you shouldn't bother.

So now you have a little background on some of the issues that crop up when you work here, especially in a blue-collar job.

Which brings me to the tale of Benjamin, our wonderful taxi driver. In March he told us he had decided not to renew his contract and he was going to go home in May. He was so well-liked by his employer that as the time drew near for him to leave, they asked him to stay longer. He agreed to stay two extra weeks. When those two weeks were up, he turned in his car, waited for the company to pay his end-of-service gratuity (a sum that is supposed to make up for the lack of a pension) and to issue his plane ticket home.

On his last day, he asked us which of his back-up drivers we preferred, and he arranged a seamless transfer. We missed him, but we were glad he was going to be able to see his family. Most lower-level workers here get to go home one month per year -- sometimes one month every two years. Unlike us, they cannot split their time (and the company would only pay for one trip home in any case).

Benjamin had a special arrangement with us, and he was available whenever we needed him. I never had to stand in the heat when it was time to go to work, and he was always on time. In return, we always paid him more than the meter read.

The life of a taxi driver here is not an easy one. Their official contracts say they are only allowed to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. That never happens. Never. Because their base salary is about $270 (and in fact the contract they must sign upon arrival gives them a lower salary than the one they signed in their home countries -- a particularly odious form of bait and switch ) they are under tremendous pressure to meet monthly quotas. Most of them work six days, some work seven. If they miss the quota, they are fined. As a result, most drivers work 12 to 18 hours a day.

Benjamin usually worked seven days -- he said he preferred it to sitting in his accommodations without anything to do. Drivers, like other low-level workers, generally live on their tips and send the rest of their salaries home to their family. A movie, for example, would be out of the question.

Companies provide accommodation for the men, but many complexes are squalid, with too many men in a room, sharing facilities. Earlier this year, Benjamin was moved to his third accommodation in three years. He was pleased because even though there were six men in his room, there were only 12 or so sharing one bathroom, and this new place had a cooking facility. He was slightly less pleased that he was living very far from town.

The taxis drivers of all the companies have, at one time or another, staged protests and strikes of a sort because of contract disputes. Retribution is swift. Quotas are raised, bonuses are smaller than promised, rules are changed. It does not matter if you are a good or loyal employee.

After two weeks of no Benjamin, we asked if he was finally home. The new driver said no, that the company was refusing to pay for his return ticket. This outraged me. Partly because of the illegality of it, partly because of the immorality of it, and partly because if I had been looking forward to going home for three months and was stuck here with no job in a room with five other people in 100+ degree heat and nowhere to go and no money to do anything I'd be pretty pissed off.

When we heard about it, we called him and asked what was up. He said the company would not pay for his return ticket (although according to UAE law all companies must repatriate their workers) because he had resigned. They were also withholding his end-of-service payment until he showed them a ticket. This was a new rule the company had instituted in the wake of a recent labor dispute in which the quotas were raised for the drivers. Many drivers resigned as a result and the company said any drivers who resigned in the future would not be entitled to a ticket home.

But Benjamin was caught in a bit of a Catch-22. His contract was for an undetermined duration. He had to resign in order to leave (or be fired). But if resignations were not permitted, there was no way for him to leave without having to pay for his own ticket. If the contract held, he would be here in perpetuity. It made no sense.

He asked us for advice. We told him to file a complaint with the Ministry of Labor. He went there and was told not to bother, that it would take too much time and was much too expensive for him. We told him this was not true, and suggested that I go along with him when he filed. A colleague of mine, a former labor rights reporter, said "Never underestimate the power of the White woman."

He didn't want to file and so we offered to pay for his ticket home. It was not a large sum of money for us, but a huge amount for him. He refused. I asked a Filipina colleague to intervene and after speaking to him she told me he was going to meet with the Philippines labor officer and did not want to take any money from us. At this point, he hadn't worked in at least three weeks, and was essentially stranded.

Benjamin didn't want to impose, and went to the court without me. He asked me to translate the complaint first (it was only in Arabic) and I discovered after getting it done that he needed to bring certain documents that nobody mentioned to him. Things went surprisingly well. The woman at the labor office said it was clear the he was entitled to the ticket. He should go back to his company, she said, and arrange the settlement. She added that if he wasn't satisfied, he should return to the court.

His company refused to settle. They insisted he was responsible because he had resigned. In fact, he sent a letter of resignation as a courtesy to the company to let them know he wasn't going to renew his labor card, which was due to expire in June. He assumed, incorrectly, apparently, that if his visa was up, then his contract was up. Nobody at his company did anything to disabuse him of this notion.

He went back to the court, and the woman wasn't there. His company's representative arrived before he did, and by the time he arrived, the rep and the court official had been speaking for some time. They both agreed he wasn't entitled to the ticket.

At this point, he was running out of options. It is possible that if he had let my colleague, who speaks Arabic, and me go with him the first time it would have been settled. It is also possible that if he had thought to ask the woman official to make a notation, to put in writing that he was entitled to his ticket, that it might have made a difference. It's impossible to know.

I took his contract into my office, conferred with an editor who had some experience reviewing contracts and with a court reporter. Both insisted he was entitled to the ticket. The only alternatives were to let us get him a ticket or let us get him a lawyer. We got the lawyer. He was willing to take on the case pro bono and seemed confident.

They arranged to meet at the court at 11 the next morning. The lawyer was two hours late, which made Benjamin very nervous. I was not in a position to leave work to be there with him, as I had at the lawyer's office. The lawyer's English is heavily accented. According to Benjamin, he lost the case again. I called the lawyer who said no, they were just appealing, and that Benjamin should meet him again at the court. I explained this to Benjamin, who didn't really believe me, I don't think, but I was sure. After speaking with the lawyer I sent a text to confirm the appointment.

By this point, Benjamin was ferrying us around in place of our driver. His brother lives in Abu Dhabi and had loaned him his car. You may be asking, if his brother (who is a nurse) lives in town, why didn't he help him. We wondered too, and it's too complicated to go into here.

Time was very short -- we were supposed to leave for Istanbul and Benjamin was taking us to the airport. It would be late at night, about 1 am. I was worried because if the lawyer thing didn't work out, Benjamin would have only two days from our return to leave the country before facing fines. We wouldn't have much time to help him find a solution.

And on the way to work that morning, he told us his brother bought him a plane ticket home. He had decided not to fight it anymore. I think he was worried about the fines. I also know his mother called his brother, yelled at him, and the brother bought the ticket. I called the lawyer and thanked him, and cancelled the appointment.

At the airport, we thanked him for his good service to us, he thanked us for helping him (although we didn't, in the end). I wish he had accepted the ticket from us. I understand completely why he did not want to.

Today, back from vacation, we asked our driver if Benjamin had left the country. Yesterday, ma'am, the driver said. We were pleased to hear it.

It turns out, as well, that the general manager of his company was fired this week. I like to think that Benjamin's official complaint was a factor -- it is rare for the drivers to actually get that far in the process before giving up. But we'll never know.

We have promised to look him up should we find ourselves in Manila.

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