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Sat 9 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Welfare estate

Local developers are launching an assault to convince the world that workers' welfare is a top priority.

Local developers are launching an assault to convince the world that workers' welfare is a top priority.

Although they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, few in the UAE's construction industry would agree.

It is a huge project to deliver within 22 months. It is the equivalent of constructing a 72-storey building in less than two years.

Dubai has become globally renowned for the colossal scale of its building projects, but recently it has gained a darker reputation for the less than favourable conditions faced by the construction workforce.

Tales of crowded, run-down labour camps, industrial unrest and poor safety standards have created the kind of headlines across the world that the city could do without.

Although some of the media reports have been embellished and officials and industry leaders are trying to improve the situation, few visitors to some of the camps could argue that the negative publicity was in no way justified.

But now, as Abu Dhabi attempts to take the construction baton from Dubai, the Emirate is determined not to get tarred with the same brush.

With more than US $100 billion (AED 367 billion) of projects in hand in the capital, a vast influx of workers is inevitable.

And to counter the labour shortages which are affecting Dubai, developers in Abu Dhabi are launching an assault to convince the world that the welfare of workers is a top priority.

This was evident at a recent press conference, held by Aldar Laing O'Rourke, when it unveiled plans for a new permanent labour city in Mussafah.

The company is a joint venture between Aldar Properties and UK construction firm Laing O'Rourke.

Its workforce will be used to construct a number of high-profile projects in the capital, including Al Raha Beach and Yas Island.

At the press conference, company bosses insisted the new camp was to be a pleasant, green community where workers would be spared the cramped, squalid environment that some labour camps have been portrayed as.

Instead, the labourers will be able to enjoy ample living space, games of cricket on acommunity playing field, shops, games rooms and large dining areas.

The labourers are currently housed in temporary buildings, which Aldar Laing O'Rourke said was still vastly superior to other camps in the GCC.

The new camp, which has just begun construction at a cost of $436 million, is due for completion in 2009 and will house 50,000 workers in its first phase.

This could increase to 150,000 in total with the construction of a second city.

Des Pike, project leader, Aldar Laing O'Rourke, says the camp was pivotal to the success of other projects.

He said: "The new residence is really moving things forward, in terms of quality of life for the workers.

"The workers that live in this [temporary] camp are generally very happy and you seldom hear any complaints.

"The main challenge of the Mussafah project is maintaining control to deliver it on time. We rely on our people, they are our greatest asset. If you have a workforce that is happy with what it's doing then you get better production. It's just simple psychology.

Gerry Francis, project manager, Aldar Laing O'Rourke, says the vast scale of the scheme and its need for a quick delivery was also adding to the challenge.

"It is a huge project to deliver within 22 months. It's the equivalent of constructing a 72-storey building in less then two years.

The camp is being built with traditional techniques - precast concrete, insulated double steel and concrete panels.

But Francis adds that the instability of the ground conditions in Musaffah was adding other challenges to the project.

He says: "The main issue there is the ground. I wouldn't call Mussafah a swamp, but not long ago I would imagine it was beach or river bed.

"The ground underneath is very soft, whereas in Yas Island everything is on solid ground.

"Because of this, everything has to be built on 25m piles. If it wasn't on such deep piles it would just sink into the ground.
The ground looks good until you actually dig two metres down and it becomes like quicksand or slurry.

Yet despite these difficulties, building work is on schedule for the new camp.

Construction Week was taken on a tour of Al Raha Beach, to see how the improved living conditions are affecting the workforce on the ground.

At a total cost of $18 billion, the Al Raha Beach development is one of the largest in Abu Dhabi.

The project is a mixed-use waterside development of residential, commercial, retail and leisure facilities.

It has been divided into eight separate smaller communities, offering a different mix of lifestyle, entertainment and business opportunities.

The scheme is so massive, stretching 5.2 million m2 along the Khor Al Raha waterway, that it will require seven new motorway interchanges and 75 new bridges.

Delivering such a huge project in such a short time - the first phase is due to open next year - will require a huge labour force.

And keeping them content and productive is essential to the scheme's success.

Guy Fowler, project leader, Aldar Laing O'Rourke, says there was a noticeable increase in the morale of workers because of their high living standards, which was leading to improved productivity.

Fowler says: "Everything we do is to British standards. We saw no reason, just because we are out here, to let this slip.

"The safety and quality of life of the workers is paramount and that is why we are putting so much emphasis on providing them with good living facilities. If you look around, I think it is one of the safest, cleanest, happiest and most productive sites in the area.

Fowler is working on the Al Bandar area of Al Raha Beach. The scheme will be a beachside community, set around an expansive central water facility consisting of luxury townhouses, apartments and villas as well as restaurants, cafes, shops and a hotel.

The project is currently in its piling and foundation stage.

Some 1,322 piles have been dug, all of them 900mm thick, and going 14-16m deep to secure the structures in the sand.

Yet Fowler says that as the buildings are being built in a variety of styles - from a 16-storey, glass-fronted tower to Manhattan-style brick townhouses - the civil stage of construction could be the most difficult.

"When you build a single tower, or a block of apartments with the same style, you only need one engineering technique," he says.

"Each engineer will have different skills and generally will not be an expert in every field of construction.

"Not everyone is familiar with brickwork, but they could be familiar with curtain walling. As there are so many different styles we are having to recruit a number of different engineers with a variety of skills.

Al Raha Beach is being built to LEED Silver certification, meaning sustainable techniques are of paramount importance.

As much construction waste as possible is being recycled, while glass, cement, steel, aluminium and wood is sourced locally.

As the construction process has to take place quickly, Fowler says safety and quality are his main concerns.

"When you think that 12 months ago there was nothing here but sand, and now you have all of this, you realise just how fast we are going," he adds.

"So if we are to keep this pace up, maintaining safety and keeping our workers happy is really important.

"I hope we are setting a standard which others will follow.

So as Abu Dhabi is finally securing the kind of iconic developments which could make it the foremost destination in the Middle East, the construction sector is realising that the city's lustre can be dulled by poor treatment of its expat construction workforce.

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