Live from Dubai's labour camps

Read Tom Arnold's full blog from his tour of labour camps in the emirate.
Live from Dubai's labour camps
ACCOMMODATION ROW: One of the labour camps in Dubai.
By Tom Arnold
Thu 16 Apr 2009 10:23 AM

5:15pm:The first batch of photos from today's tour are now live and will be added during the evening.

3.15pm: Slightly surreal experience - I'm now sitting in a Burger King on Sheikh Zayed Road being treated to a bean royale meal by Arabtec representatives. Makes you wonder how often the workers get this sort of treat.

3.10pm: So that's the end of the tour. While I'm sure improvements were made by Arabtec since the BBC paid a visit, and you'd expect that, I hope it has given you a taste of what life might be like for the average construction site labourer in Dubai. Personally, it's been a real eye opener. It's hard to imagine this world exists just 10 minutes from my comfortable apartment in Al Barsha. 3.05pm:Just heard that our photographer is on his way back to the office now and so we hope to post our photos from the tour in an hour or so. 3pm:We have just finished our tour of Nad al Sheba camp and the consensus among the journalists is that we have seen enough, despite the offer by Arabtec to show us the clinic. On the way back to the bus, Laxmi, the welfare officer, tells me the company has recently held a traffic awareness day for workers in response to the high number of road accidents involving workers generally - some of which have been fatal.

She also told me that all labourers have been told to carry their labour cards with them at all times after an incident involving one labourer (not an Arabtec worker) whose body lay unidentified for about 10 days in Dubai. 2:55pm:More information about the Vietnamese workers - I'm told they came back to the camp drunk after a night out and the trouble flared. Alcohol is not allowed at the Nad al Sheba camp.

Have been given a tour of the toilets which cause so much outrage in the BBC documentary and, surprise, surprise, they were being cleaned by a man in overalls, wellington boots and mask when I arrived.

Not surprising then that they were quite clean and the taps worked. I'm told there are 20 men to each washing facility and I have to say that there were lots of flies buzzing around in there.

2:35pm: My tour by security guard Richard Robertson, from Kenya, continues. Amusingly, he said security had been tightened since the BBC got in. He told me he had just knocked off work when the BBC entered with their cameras.

He said there were three entry gates and no one can get in now without permission. He admitted a lot of sewage was around the camp at the time of the BBC visit.

Unbelievably there is internet here - amazing as it is so bare in so many other ways. I spotted portakabins earlier with Vietnam Only on the door and Richard tells me the Vietnamese workers had been separated and since thrown out after problems with them fighting other nationalities.

There are 8 to a small room and 12 in larger rooms, which have concrete floors and metal bunk beds. Two Nepalese workers were preparing food on the floor - lamb and chicken stew - when I turned up.

They spoke a little English and I managed to find out that one was a lift operator earning 900 dirhams and the other a crane operator earning 1,400 dirhams. Both were cautious about talking to me but told me they had been here for 18 months and that they really missed their family and Nepal. 2:25pm:The rest of the media group are nowhere to be seen and I now have my own security guard as I take a look around the site. Have been in to see the cooking facilities and spoke through Richard, the security guard, to a worker called Abdul Kader from Bangladesh, a carpenter who earns 800 dirhams a month.

He has worked at Arabtec for seven months and was cooking rice and potatoes as he chatted. He's one of the late shift workers - they work from 6pm to 3am - and he told me he has a wife and two sons back home - speaks to them once a month.

Through Richard, I asked if he was happy here but the guard refused to ask him that. 2:10pm:I'm now at Nad al Sheba camp, which is in the process of being dismantled after Arabtec lost the Meydan racecourse contract.

Compared to the others we have visited, this is a bit of a different world - pretty depressing stuff. There are a few more workers about so will try to chat to them. On the bus here one reporter said he thought the tour was a whitewash, a bit of a circus but at least we are here.

I'm currently standing in the camp on my own while all the other reporters have gone off with the guide. A security guard is watching me on the phone as we speak. Further to our chat on the bus here, Hejjawi has been telling me the workers can leave the camp at any time but Friday is the only day for visitors.

I asked why and he said it was because it gets too crowded. Pretty unfair if you ask me. I'm walking through the camp - and you get the feeling you're pretty much in the desert. This is less established than the others - there's a feel that it was hastily put up and not a pleasant place to live.

The sun is out here but you could imagine what it's like if it was raining - a complete mudbath as there is no drainage.

1:40pm: We are on our way to the temporary camp at Nad al Sheba and I'm using the opportunity to fire questions at Ammar Al-Hejjawi, the Jordanian camp coordinator for all 20 Arabtec camps.

Asked why Arabtec hasn't invited us in to see the camps before, he said: "You can come any time you like as long as you have permission." So what about the BBC crew who secretly filmed for a documentary last week? "That was without permission, that was not right," Al-Hejjawi told me.

"If you come to my house and speak to my wife or son without my permission that is not right," he added. He claimed labourers could be afraid of cameras and of the attention.

Speaking about the mostly Asian workers, he said: "They are a different culture. The Indians, they can fit six people to a room, the Arabs would not agree to that," he said.

He said it was not possible to mix, for example, someone from Bombay with someone from Bangalore. "The culture is different, their food is different, they are different."

1:25pm: Have been asking about how the workers contact their families back home and was surprised to hear there are no payphones in the camp.

If they want to phone home, they have to use phones outside the camp. However, I'm told that most have mobiles and Arabtec apparently supplied 10,000 sim cards offering discounted rates to workers. (I could do with one of those)

Going back to the food, Laxmi tells me she makes sure the curry has spinach in it as the workers need as much iron in their diets with the summer months coming. About 350-400 workers buy their food at the camp each night.

There are signs all over the walls here with messages telling the workers how to stay healthy. Here's one telling them to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day and I can see another saying drinking alcohol causes ill health. And another - wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before cooking.

1:10pm: Have found out a bit more about the sort of food the workers eat. Apparently for 3.50 dirhams, the workers can buy a meal including rice, daal, veg, spinach and potato curry, sambar, a spicy south Indian curry, and fish curry and something called pakoda which is similar to an onion bhaji. I tasted one and it was quite nice. 12:55pm:Arabtec's welfare officer Laxmi Montgomery has joined us for the tour. She tells me she was born in India, lived in New Zealand where she studied Social Science and came to Dubai with her husband. She teaches the workers many things including breathing techniques to help them deal with the amount of dust on construction sites and the side effects of alcohol. 12:45pm:Okay, here we are at the second labour camp... this is called Jebel Ali Camp 2 (very original) and we are being shown around by Khad-in Ali, the camp manager. This is a bigger camp with 510 rooms occupied by 4,200 - you do the maths. It's not as nice as the first one - it's grubbier and it's more worn down. We were shown the cleaners' room - well that would be the cleanest wouldn't it? - and it had flowers and a stereo system.

We have been escorted around by two very stern security guards. There are 28 kitchens, 12 dining rooms, again very basic cooking facilities with rusty hobs. Not many workers to talk to yet.

I'm told they had a Ministry of Labour inspection here yesterday and they were told they would be fined if the inspectors found cigarettes on the ground. Smoking is not allowed inside, only in the courtyard where their washing is put out which doesn't seem very nice. 12:35pm:Here's something I never thought I'd hear - apparently the cleanest workers in this camp are rewarded by being taken out for a picnic. Anyway, we're off to the second camp now... 12:25pm:The rooms are pretty sparse and there are metal bunk beds in each with very thin mattresses to sleep four workers. The floors are fairly clean and most appear to have air con. Some have a small fridge and one even had an old TV. A few toiletries are on display which was a surprise.

I'm told that when the workers come home from work, the first thing they do is cook and then some go to the TV room which they have to use in shifts because the room isn't big enough. Films are occasionally put on for workers - no Gold Class facilities though. 12:15pm:Wasn't looking forward to this bit - the visit to the toilet facilities but it was not as bad as I feared. Again the smell of bleach is strong but the water runs and the toilet flushes. I've just tried it and the flush was so powerful it has wet my trousers. 12:05pm:We're at the first camp at Jebel Ali Industrial Area - it's not what I expected, the dining area has a widescreen TV that's bigger than mine.

Most of the workers are out at work. Apparently, there are seven different nationalities including some Arab nations, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese who live here.

There are 494 workers and capacity is 625. Being shown around by admin manager Mohammed Mahmud. It looks fairly clean and there is a smell of bleach in the dining area. I get the feeling that this might be the best camp as it is the first they have showed us around.

Cooking facilities - hobs are all rusty and they are very, very basic facilities - even worse than my first student accommodation.

I'm told some of the workers here have resigned while others have had their contracts terminated due to the construction industry slowdown. Many are returning home due to personal family problems while another five percent of workers are transferring to Qatar and Saudi because of slowdown of work in Dubai. Arabian Business reporter Tom Arnold will be reporting live from a number of labour camps in Dubai on Thursday.

The invitation from Arabtec Holding CEO Riad Kamal to inspect seven of the company's 20 camps followed a documentary by the BBC’s Panorama programme which claimed the firm’s camps were filthy and overcrowded.

The tour is slightly delayed and is expected to start at midday UAE time after which Tom will be sending in regular reports on what he sees and hears.

Till then, watch this video on one of Dubai's labour camps.

To get live updates, keep logging on to Arabian Business.

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