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Sun 19 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

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Rooting out the rotten apples

The weight of the gov't must be brought to bear to improve the conditions of Dubai's labour camps, argues Andrew White.

It has been a week of rebuttal and recrimination among construction industry heavyweights this week, with each determined to present their labour camps as bastions of comfort and cleanliness.

For the first time, the media has been invited to tour accommodation blocks made infamous by a recent BBC documentary which showed overflowing raw sewage leaking through the accommodation provided by one contractor. On screen, toilets were overflowing, and garbage was scattered everywhere. You could almost smell the stink rising off your television set.

On our tours since, we've been shown sparkling recreation rooms filled (not over-filled, mind) with smiling workers, and dropped in on gleaming kitchens peopled by bands of enthusiastic amateur chefs ready for a hot meal at the end of their regulation eight-hour day.

We've also spoken to workers on their own, away from the tours, and heard now-familiar stories of horrendous mistreatment, withheld pay and broken promises. We've seen overworked men, young and old, ferried back to their overcrowded accommodation on ill-equipped buses. We've seen tears and heard enough stories to make you weep.

Not all construction firms treat their workers with such disdain, and this week in an interview with Arabian Business, the boss of the company at the centre of the BBC scandal argues that the images were atypical of actual conditions.

Indeed, the majority of firms offer adequate accommodation and a standard of living that is basic, but attractive to labourers coming from the subcontinent and looking for wages that are high in relation to what they might earn back home.

The task now is for Dubai to identify the few bad apples that are causing such a stink, and rotting the whole barrel.

This is a private sector issue, but the weight of government must be brought to bear. The authorities must accurately assess the extent of the problem - and thankfully it is a duty the government is already undertaking.

Responding swiftly, Dubai's police chief has demanded better coordination to "guarantee cleanliness" at camps across the emirate, and instructed municipality and Labour Ministry officials to work together to ensure camps provide adequate living conditions to construction workers. Snap field inspections will be carried out, and companies will face heavy fines unless they provide satisfactory standards of cleanliness and safety.

Dubai's government usually gets what it wants, and now it wants the same thing as the millions who saw the BBC documentary - an end to the inhumanity.

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On a lighter note, last week a group of bright sparks at the University of Sharjah (AUS) unveiled the GCC's first student-built solar powered car, which has a top speed of 100km/h and boasts a 1.5bhp engine powered by a series of 740 cells on its body.

The Siemens Sunchaser is a collaboration between Siemens LLC and the AUS College of Engineering, and its designers say the new car will act as a prototype for future alternative energy vehicles developed in the region.

It is not, however, the first solar car to have made headlines in the UAE. In September 2007, inventor Louis Palmer arrived in the Gulf with his ‘Solartaxi', a Swiss-built car that last year became the first solar powered vehicle to travel around the world, taking in 40 countries and some 50,000km in 18 months.

As part of the UAE's commitment to climate control mitigation and alternative energy development, might the AUS team be prepared to take on a similar challenge? At the very least, the two vehicles could race - I'm reliably informed that the Swiss model has a top speed of just 90km/h...

Andrew White is the editor of Arabian Business English.

RELATED LINK:Labour pains

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

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Geriant 11 years ago

Even if there is but one camp that met the descriptions the BBC shared with the world, Dubai has a lot to answer for. Smiling workers in gleaming kitchens are all very well, but the tears and the fears are where reality meets perception. The construction lords who boast of rooms full of passports and the end consumers who sit in luxury are equally to blame for the blot on Dubai's no longer pristine image. Now the reality of the slave farms has been exposed it is time for a watchdog to be put in place, and don't go and hire any hasbeens from Rera!

Ahmed Ammar 11 years ago

Dear Sir, I've bought a 1 BR apartment in the Gate Towers project in Al Reem Island direct from Sorouh last April. The price I’ve paid back then was AED1,810.00 per square feet. I bought it for investment reasons with the intention of renting it out after completion and as a long term pension savings plan. Due to the global economic meltdown and other commitments, I've decided to sell that apartment off. I've tried offering it at different prices but in vain. No one would buy my unit although it's in a very high floor and with excellent views of the sea and landscaped garden. Desperate for cash flow, I've even tried to sell it with -10% premium and failed. Many real estate agencies told me that the market is flooded with units in the gate project for far lesser prices than what I ask. It wasn’t until I came across an ad in GN4U that I realized the reason for this condition. Dated 28th March 09, an investor put an ad to sell his 1 BR unit in The Gate Towers and has indicated the Original Price as AED1,056.00 per square feet and he's offering it for AED1,100.00 per square feet. Now, needless to say, I stand no chance of selling my property with a huge price difference between my unit and this investor. That means I've paid a staggering AED800.00 more per square feet (almost 76% price hike) than what that investor paid for an exact similar unit in the same tower!! The simple math says that while he'll be making a profit of AED44.00 / Sq Ft. (AED43,560.00 in profit from his unit) I will be suffering a massive loss of AED710.00 / Sq Ft. (AED572,970.00 loss from my unit) if I decided to sell my unit for the same price which became the prevailing market price. According to the Ad, this investor (like myself) has paid only 20% of the unit price to the developer. It is mind boggling as for how this extreme variation of prices (direct from the developer) had happened in a less than 2 months time span. Upon calling the contact person in that ad, I’ve been told that the investor has bought a full floor in that tower and now is offering it for sale. It is understandable that agents and mega investors should get special rates; however, this should carefully measured in order not to ruin investment opportunities for smaller investors. I feel betrayed by Sorouh with this unjustified fluctuation in prices of the same tower. I feel this is would not only ruin small investors in today's market conditions, but it will also permanently destroy customer confidence in Sorouh integrity and transparency proclaims (and the whole of Abu Dhabi real estate market for that matter) unless a radical solution to this outrageous situation is found and finalized.