Monday, April 11, 2011

YEMEN: Laid off construction workers join protests

SANAA, 11 April 2011 (IRIN) - Faris Ubad, 34, is one of hundreds of day labourers who get up at the crack of dawn and make their way - with their shovels, hammers and other construction tools - to the Dar Salm intersection in southern Sana’a in the hope of finding a day’s work from passing contractors.

But many wait all day in vain: Since the political unrest began a few weeks ago, the construction sector has all but come to a standstill.

"It has been more than 35 days since I picked up any work… I was forced to sell our TV set last week to feed my wife and four children, Ubad, who in the past worked as a builder’s mate, told IRIN.

According to recent government statistics, more than one million day labourers depend on the construction industry for a living, with most earning the equivalent of about US$9 a day.

"The construction sector is currently experiencing unprecedented stagnation. As a result, hundreds of thousands of labourers are left without any income," said Mohammed Ayish, an economist in the Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Investors and contractors have either suspended construction projects or are watching and waiting until calm returns.

"Project owners told us to stop until the political crisis ends," Ali Sarari, a Sana’a construction contractor, told IRIN.

The devaluation of the Yemeni riyal over the past couple of months has caused imported construction materials like iron and cement to rise sharply in price, and the riyal has fallen from 238 to 214 to the US dollar in the past month. The Central Bank of Yemen has not made any attempt to stabilize the riyal, Mohammed al-Hadhari, an exchange dealer, told IRIN.

Reduced demand for construction materials

Businessman Hefdhullah al-Ansi said demand for construction materials had declined by 70 percent. "I used to sell more than YR500,000-worth of construction materials a day, but now it is YR200,000 maximum," he told IRIN, adding that he has had to lay off four of his six workers.

Instead of staying idle, many of the unemployed have joined demonstrations organized by the youth movement near Sana’a University. They see the protests as an opportunity to air their grievances.

"We need change. We need to have access to free health care. We need a new government with good economic policies," construction worker Saif Ahmad, currently camping out with the university protesters, told IRIN.

Hundreds of casual workers are now camping out with the young protesters near the university, economist Ayish told IRIN. "They have found somewhere they can get food and express their demands; they spend their time participating in anti-government demonstrations."

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