Worker welfare: A moral and legal obligation

Tatjana Stepanova, Worker Welfare manager at Cimolai Rimond, on why firms must take worker welfare seriously and how it benefits the bottom line

Today, the concept of worker welfare is generally accepted by organisations, though the degree of understanding and importance varies greatly across industries. However, in light of new regulations in the construction industry and with the UAE currently engaged in high profile construction projects, the construction industry is and will have a leading role in expanding, defining and maintaining worker welfare standards and applying them as a mandatory part of operations.

Traditionally in the UAE, worker welfare has been understood as providing acceptable standards for a healthy, safe and secure environment for workers, and protecting their rights – generally speaking, this included employment, accommodation, transportation, food allowance, workmen compensation and health and safety onsite.  Companies aimed to adhere to or fulfil regulatory requirements and related UAE laws where applicable, but other practices beyond UAE borders and internal operations were susceptible to shortcomings and malpractice.

Ministerial decrees, laws and initiatives introduced in the past years aim to raise the expected bar for worker welfare. Efforts and priority were given to improving practices within the recruitment industry and eliminating the “employee-pays” recruitment model found in overseas migration; reinforcing labour relations between employer and worker through the clarity, transparency and conformity of contractual agreements; ensuring the provision and raising the quality of labour accommodation; specifying strict penalties for late payment and non-payment of wages, in addition to the Wage Protection System (WPS); preparing and empowering workers through comprehensive information and orientation programmes about their rights and responsibilities.

This brings us to the worker welfare principles, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Free, ethical and non-discriminative recruitment
  • Prohibition of forced, bonded, indentured or child labour
  • Provide workers with an offer letter and employment contract in line with the law of the country of work
  • Inform workers about the terms and conditions of their employment, and their labour rights, in a language they understand
  • Provide a healthy, safe, clean and secure working environment and living facilities
  • Preserve the dignity of workers and ensure equal and fair treatment
  • Ensure wage payments are correct and paid on time
  • Provide freedom of movement, resignation, right to voice any concerns and raise grievances

All these changes require a new and expanded role – the ‘Worker Welfare Manager’ – along with the true meaning of the title.

Depending on the size and structure of an organisation, worker welfare compliance may be carried out by these roles or departments: Human Resources, Accommodation or Facilities Management and Health and Safety. However, worker welfare requires and involves other functions represented in the employment cycle, such as management, planning, procurement, administration, accounting, transportation and security.

The responsibilities of a Worker Welfare Manager have become more complex and requires someone who understands the new expanded regulatory requirements, implements worker welfare policies, management plans and procedures to ensure that worker welfare is an integral part of the entire chain of operations, and is represented equally in business teams, especially on high-profile and high-publicity projects.

The Worker Welfare Manager should monitor worker welfare adherence to the policies and plans of the company, UAE laws and project-specific requirements, and ensure that workers are treated accordingly. This requires the competence and ability to manage various stakeholders, analyse information and data provided, advise and coach departments on worker welfare requirements and new initiatives, coordinate and assess worker welfare compliance, oversee solutions and resolutions to improve worker welfare across the chain.

Most business leaders would agree that a company’s success depends on how happy the customer is. Since a company is run by its people and not by machines, this means a happy employee makes for a happy customer. In construction ‘the client’ is a customer. For example, a developer who seeks the delivery of a project within the defined quality, time and budget.

The contractor is responsible for providing all the material, labour, equipment and services necessary for construction, as well as the quality, worker welfare, health and safety of all work performed by any and all subcontractors, including manpower suppliers.

By providing adequate worker welfare arrangements, the company improves worker well-being, increases productivity and motivation, and reduces the number of health and safety related incidents and accidents. This represents the interdependent chain, where worker-welfare shortcomings or malpractices will affect the project’s KPIs, delivery, and public image. In contrast, following the best worker welfare practices rewards a project.

The risks in a lack of worker welfare should not be overlooked and should be identified and assessed. The broken air-conditioning in the accommodation room, or the poor tasting food provided by the catering company may not seem like big issues, but they may lead to extreme fatigue and food poisoning, resulting in sick days being taken, worker dissatisfaction, worker absences and a loss of productivity on site.

Some serious malpractices may lead to strikes, damage of property and reputation, or – in the worst case – loss of life. It is necessary that all worker welfare incidents be investigated as health and safety matters, the root causes identified, and corrective measures adopted.

First and foremost, the company has a moral and legal obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of employees. and should encourage other partners to implement and comply with worker welfare and related laws.

In conclusion, worker welfare transcends the limits of project site boundaries and regulatory laws. It is the understanding that workers are people looking for work opportunities and the pursuit of happiness and livelihood – no different to many of us who have left our homes behind to establish a working career in the UAE.

Workers are the most precious asset that any company has – human capital. Today’s Worker Welfare Managers need to relate to this and become leaders of change, not only for the inherent humane element in this role, but also to be drivers of change within the macro-business and legislative changes taking place in the UAE.

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