Wednesday, September 14, 2011


When did you first hear the expression "living wage" as a notion of the minimum amount a worker should get paid?

Minimum wage, as an expression and an important concept in labor, has probably been around for a long time. A living wage is fundamentally the same thing except for the added attention it brings to need for that wage to be sufficient to survive on.

In a word or two, Dubai desperately needs this! (All of the UAE and the Arabian Gulf countries, where you have millions of migrant/immigrant workers earning meager wages, need this.) Too many workers struggle and endure great hardship through their often long periods of employment.

My argument for a living wage is this:

Work is an all-consuming and fundamental determiner in the lives of most adults. It is rather inhumane that one would have to devote most of his/her waking hours to such an endeavor and not be able to at least survive on it.

A living-wage should be a given. Whatever one's job, if it is full-time, it should provide sufficient income to afford shelter, food, transport and other essentials like health care, clothing and a minimal amount of recreational and personal development opportunities.

Now, when discussing such things, defining the terms precisely often represents a stumbling block.

What exactly is full-time work and how does one define shelter and minimal standards for food, transport, health care, etc. These are not simple clarifications to make, yet there is no reason why workable definitions and standards cannot be set by competent authorities.

What is perhaps even more interesting and important is that definitions and standards would need to be relative to the situation on the ground. That is, the average standard of living in any given region and various demographic factors would need to be looked at so that minimum standards could be set to reflect these conditions.

So, how might a living wage work for Dubai?

Off the bat, a few ideas like the following could be considered for a fair living wage (calculated monthly):
    General Cost of Living

  1. housing/accommodation: the cost for 4 men or women to share a studio apartment, as a minimum standard, might average 500 dhs per person.
  2. meals: 500 dhs per individual, mostly home prepared.
  3. transportation: 270 dhs, which buys a monthly rail/bus pass with unlimited use.
  4. incidental health care: 100 dhs, for occasional doctor visits and over-the-counter medicines (health insurance should be a universal employer-provided benefit).
  5. clothing, recreation, educational expenses: 250 dhs, which could cover one's share of cable television or internet, basic clothing care and replacement and admission to a public park or library on a regular basis.
    Dubai (& UAE/Gulf) Extras

  1. savings/repatriation: 95% of the labor force in Dubai is expatriate or local-born expat and the vast majority of these work here with the expectation of providing in some way for themselves to return with or family back home. So, above and beyond their own living expenses, workers in the UAE should be guaranteed a slim margin above this, of say 200 dhs.
  2. pension scheme: most expatriate workers lose out on retirement schemes in their home countries for being overseas and don't qualify for any government schemes in the UAE. The government at present enforces a system of gratuity, which is extremely limited and the calculator is reset, so to speak, every time a worker changes employers. So, no amount of substantial funds can ever accumulate. 100 dhs could be added to the living wage to support this need.
--drum roll--

Recommended Living Wage for the Workers of Dubai:
1920 Dhs ($523)

One more key issue is that many employers prefer to provide for some of the workers' living expenses like housing, food and transport (to the worksite). They use this as an excuse to pay significantly lower wages. So a cleaner, for example, gets paid 500 dhs per month. Obviously it is a cost-savings for the employer but results in what I would call exploitation of the worker.

While an employer should have the right to provide for some of the workers' living expenses in lieu of payment it should be as follows:
  1. at the option of the employee to accept or decline, and
  2. if accepted, the associated payment should be reduced by, say, 60% rather than entirely withdrawn.
So, if a minimum housing component to one's wage is 500 dhs, then if an employee is provided accommodation he/she should still be entitled to 40% of the 500 dhs, or 200 dhs. What happens at present is that employers often provide sub-standard housing and meals to employees (at very low costs to themselves) and use this as an excuse to pay extremely low wages.

At the end of the day, the worker is not the property of the employer. The worker should have the fundamental right to receive his/her full wages and determine how he/she shall spend it. The worker should have a great amount of control over where he sleeps and what he eats. The transport portion of his/her wages should not be subject to reduction just because the employer provides transport to the worksite.

The living-wage, on the other hand, should be a minimum standard for the working individual only, and not a family-wage to support spouse or other dependents. That is, it would be sufficient for the bachelor, as it were, who usually comes to the UAE alone. It is the reality on-the-ground here that most workers (both male and female) come to the UAE alone to work. It would not be fair or reasonable to expect employers to provide support for expatriate workers' families to live in the UAE with them or to be comfortably supported back home--not as a basis of a minimum standard.

So, let's hear it for a living-wage for Dubai's workers!

This is an idea that I believe expatriates, non-citizen locals and citizen-locals could all support. It could also set a precedent, with Dubai at the forefront, for all Gulf countries.

See a comparison of salaries and wages table for Dubai. Very few of the jobs on the listing fall below my recommended living wage, however, what the table does not reveal are the percentage of workers in each job category. Probably the single highest category for number of workers in the UAE would be laborer.