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New middle east construction think tank should be created to improve practices, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 18 Jun 2015 | 4:34 pm | 3 min. read

OPINION: A new think tank should be created to review employment issues in the Middle East construction sector and to build on work by businesses in the Middle East who are developing a unified contract for the hiring of construction workers.

The construction sector is vital to the economies of members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates should be leading the way in their handling of construction workforces, especially with mega projects like the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and World Expo 2020 in the UAE coming up.

A reliable, independent, expert and internationally-orientated entity that can drive standards within the GCC construction sector is needed to conduct a holistic review, focusing on each area that has an impact on the construction sector’s workforce.

This group should not be limited to employer interests or only involve local entities, but it should have a wide ranging membership with a variety of expertise and experience – from skills training providers to charities concerned with labour worker welfare. This think tank should also include a mix of international and local expertise given that GCC’s construction sector competes on a global scale.  

This think tank would build on a plan by the Federation of GCC Chambers of Commerce, which has asked senior officials to explore the development of a regional policy for hiring workers. The team will explore ways a regional policy – or a unified contract – could be introduced to help handle the flow of foreign workers within the GCC.

As you might expect from an organisation like the Chambers of Commerce, the main motivation behind the review is the need for a recruitment system that minimises issues confronting business. The ultimate ambition is to save time and money through a more efficient process.

This is needed - speak to any employer operating within the GCC’s construction sector and they will have a story about the various challenges their business has faced trying to recruit and manage a project’s workforce. It is commonplace to hear employers complain about facing higher recruitment fees, rising payroll commitments, irregularities in employment contracts, acute skills shortages, and ongoing procedural delays.

As one of the world’s largest construction markets – with around 20 million labour workers and thousands more white collar professionals located within the GCC – clearly all of these issues need to be addressed in a systematic fashion.

This means involving more than just businesses and addressing more issues than just the availability of labour workers. That is why a broader think tank is needed, to uncover the views and needs of a multitude of businesses, authorities, non-government organisations, and other service providers.

It is only by bringing together the full sweep of interests and views from across the construction stakeholder base that we can start to truly tackle the plethora of workforce related issues impacting on the efficiency and effectiveness of the sector as a whole.

For example, those procuring construction projects need to have a better understanding of the workforce training costs contractors take on upfront – and that supporting these costs are actually an investment in the timely delivery of their project. Similarly, striving for continuously improving treatment and conditions for labour workers means less injuries and enhanced productivity. For both of these scenarios, the think tank concept could offer governments and other regulators an independent view, helping to shape a well-rounded and more effective final policy. 

This think tank should not just be about tackling labour workers issues either. An often forgotten part of the overall workforce is the professional element, where there is considerable competition globally to secure the very best talent. Regional governments and other authorities need to understand exactly what professional workers require to ensure they end up helping to grow the local construction industry and ultimately the economies in this part of the world, rather than elsewhere.

The think tank should not be a new policy-making body, but an independent group dedicated to improving standards within the GCC construction sector. The vision should be for the GCC construction sector’s workforce to be the envy of the world precisely because it is rooted in best practice.

Sachin Kerur is a construction specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. Pinsent Masons is running a seminar on employment law in the Middle East in London on 14 July and Aberdeen on 16 July.