Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A complex society

There was an interesting report in Gulf News the other day about labourers' salaries that gives some insights into life here.

I keep on about putting things in context, particularly with complaints from the media outside the area and expats using their own culture and societies as a basis for what they think should happen.

In particular I've talked many times about the unique guest worker society we live in, where expats can't become citizens, where eighty percent of the population are here temporarily. It's very very different from the societies we come from.

I've heard many expats complain, for example, that education isn't free, nor is medical treatment, that there's no social security, that we have to pay for everything.

In reality of course those things do exist - for citizens. As temporary guest workers who pay no income tax it makes sense to me that we should have to pay our own way.

People have complained endlessly about 'hidden charges' when they buy property, such as the Community Fees. But we don't pay what are called council rates back home, a charge from the municipality for things such as street cleaning and garbage collection. The Community Fee is simply that.

But I digress - back to the report.

In an attempt to stop the problem of companies not paying wages on time, or making illegal deductions, the government made it mandatory for salaries to be paid through banks.

They're trying to find a way to get on top of a problem, a problem for which Dubai has been criticised, unfairly I should add because it's private companies which are responsible for creating the problem. Nevertheless, the government has introduced regulations to try to stop the practice - but then you start to look at some of the difficulties involved.

Here's part of the report:

Every payday, workers line up at a solitary Automated Teller Machine (ATM) at the former Jebel Ali Village.

One man at the head of the queue proceeds to ask for their personal identification number (PIN) and the amount they wish to withdraw.

The workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot speak, read or write in English. As such, they cannot read the instructions on the machine after they insert their bank card into the ATM.

The man at the head of the queue - the literate one - charges a nominal sum (usually a few fils) to aid the workers by withdrawing money for them.

Many of the workers apparently do not know that it is not safe to provide your PIN to anybody.

The problem of illiteracy or the language barrier crops up many times in all sots of areas.

Safety is another example - if the workers can't read the signs they don't know what they're supposed to do or not do.

In a society with a reported 180 nationalities, language is always going to create huge difficulties.

Then there's the problem of the lack of bank branches and ATMs. We all face those problems but it's worse for the labourers, who don't have transport.

"I have to walk quite a distance to get my money," said Kumar, a pipe-fitter working with a Jebel Ali company.

He said there were a few banks in the area of New Dubai where many construction projects are currently underway.

That's going to be even worse for them now that the temperature is up in the mid-forties celcius and humidity is rising.

Then there's the cost.

"I heard from my friends that if you withdraw from another bank you are charged Dh2."

While all banks are linked through a central system, one is charged for using ATM with other banks.

What we think of as tiny amounts involved are actually significant to the lowly paid.

I realised that early on when the security guard in my building asked if he could have my morning newspaper when I've finished with it. To buy one for a couple of dirhams a day means Dh60 a month, which is about ten percent of his monthly wage.

Can you imagine spending that amount just to buy a morning paper?

I have a feeling this is one of the world's most complex societies to try to administer and one that it's very difficult to get our heads around.

Here's the Gulf News story.


bohat ajeeb said...

I totally agree with your point here. It is indeed very difficult to manage a society where people from hundreds of nationalities live together.
But if we just look at the demographics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_in_Dubai), it shouldn't be difficult to understand that they just need to focus on the majority of the population (Indian, Pakistani, Srilankan, Bangladeshi). We should see every ATM with language options for these nationalities. Same goes for all government notices etc.

As of 1998, 17% of the population of the emirate was made up of UAE nationals. Approximately 85% of the expatriate population (and 71% of the emirate's total population) was Asian (chiefly Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan). About 3% of the total population of Dubai was categorized as "Western". In addition, 16% of the population (or 288,000 persons) lived in collective labour accommodation were not identified by ethnicity or nationality, but were thought to be primarily Asian.

Seabee said...

Bohat it would be difficult to put all the languages required, and that's another complexity of our society.

Also, those 1998 figures are very different from the reality today. Westerners make up much more than the 3% quoted (which was wrong even then) and people such as Filipinos and Chinese are now here in hundreds of thousands.

Also remember that many of the labourers can't read and write their own languages.

Emjay said...

India has more than 20 (official) languages - each as different form the other as english is from say French. So just to cater to the Indian Labourers would be a monumental task.

bohat ajeeb said...

This seems more like a software application user interface design problem then :)
Put in good pictures/logos/videos that anyone can understand

Shu said...

great blog. thanks!

Dave said...

Terrific blog.

Seabee, if you can see these problems in this unique society why can't the authorities? Or, do they actually realise them but don't give a damn?

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to manage but I am not sure if it is one of the most difficult across the world, in my opinion it is easy to manage if you intend to be clear and transperant of what you think is right.

Keefieboy said...

Wasn't there a proposal a few years ago that everyone (including labourers) should present a high-school certificate of some sort? Dumb idea, but I seem to remember it being put forward.

And the thing about forcing companies to pay through banks is just silly: surely there's a better way?

I admit to being deeply cynical about banks, these days.

Seabee said...

Keefie: forcing companies to pay through banks is just silly: surely there's a better way?It's yet another in a long line of not thinking it through, not realising there's always a ripple effect from actions.

Seems like a good idea but it forgets the practicalities as outlined in the stories - like the poor buggers having to walk miles in fifty degree heat to find an ATM and then don't know how to work it to get their money out!

They need to have two starting points before they come up with a system. One is that they have to find a way to stop companies ripping off their employees. Two, many of the employees are illiterate, many can't understand Arabic or English, many don't have transport and aren't near a bank or ATM. They also can't afford to pay for taxis from their miserable wages. And many of them have no idea what a bank account is all about.

So the problem has two aspects to it and a system needs to be created which addresses both, not just one.

Umar in Dubai said...

Biometric ATMs are used specifically for that purpose in rural areas where people can use their thumbprints instead of PIN numbers to access their bank accounts and withdraw cash. The screens show pictures along with text to make it easy to operate by those who are unable to read.