Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Mussafah Labor Camps

without comments

This afternoon I visited the labor camps in Mussafah, a suburb of Abu Dhabi. These compounds demonstrate the horrific wage gap in this country. The government has not set a minimum wage, nor does it regulate working conditions for lower-income workers. As a result, companies import men from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, the Phillipines, and Indonesia for undesirable tasks such as cleaning, maintenance, and the peculiar occupation known as “office boy.” Such a person spends each day making coffee, copies, and small talk. During Ramadan, public consumption of any beverage is forbidden, thus reducing his workload further.

Belaji, our guide, holds the latter post at one of the local media companies. A young Indian with a convivial disposition, he came to the UAE last December and worked for a few months in the Abu Dhabi Mall. His company then reassigned him to the media company where he met Andy, one of my good friends here. He currently makes about 500 Dirhams (about $150) per month, most of which he sends home to his mother and grandmother. His father came here about nine years ago and performs janitorial work for an oil company. A prudent businessman, his father immediately invested his salary in land. Now the family owns rice paddies in India, which they lease to a tenant. The fields yield about 5000 Dirhams worth of rice per year, of which the family receives 3000 Dirhams. His wages here, though appalling by Western standards, have thus significantly advanced his position in India. Several weeks ago, Belaji’s brother arrived here; a cleaning company employs him. The two younger men meet daily; the father joins them about every ten months. They each receive home leave once a year.

Last week, Andy asked to visit Belaji’s camp and invited me along for the trip. Together with Rahim, Andy’s colleague, we left Abu Dhabi for Mussafah. The trip lasted only 20 minutes. We exited the highway and Belaji indicated rows of ramshackle buildings just beyond the exit ramp. Now I have traveled along this highway daily for the last two months and never suspected that people lived in these buildings: I thought that they were warehouses or livestock pens. We proceeded past the main section of the camp and then followed a road that bordered the rear. Rows of trucks—cement mixers, water tankers, container trucks—lined the roadway; the drivers had parked them for the evening. After weaving around these vehicles, we parked in an ill-kept lot just beyond Belaji’s building. He sprung from the car and with great enthusiasm motioned for us to follow. I characteristically took stock of my surroundings, shifted uncomfortably, and then attached myself to the rear of the party.

This particular facility was laid out in a rectangular fashion. The dormitories enclosed a central area that consisted of bathing stalls and a large trough, much like those in baseball stadiums, for general use. Buckets full of soiled clothes ringed the bath house. Acres of shoes and sandals also covered this area, for most people in this culture remove their footwear before going inside. Belaji took us immediately to his room. It measured about 10’x15’; eight men occupied this space. A few of his mates were fast asleep in the rear of the room and, waking, gave us irritated glances as we observed the accommodations. Returning to the hallway, several other men had gathered for the sideshow. They eagerly shook our hands, took pictures with us, and asked about our countries. At the end of hall, a group of Bangledeshis pointed and giggled amongst themselves. Although cramped, the conditions here far exceeded those in the next few stops on our tour.

Having acquired another companion, we drove across the camp to meet some of Belaji’s friends. A wave of foul odor, emanating from either rotten food or sewage (or both), greeted us as we entered this enclave. In addition to the assortment of shoes, a collection of wheeled contraptions cluttered the common area. Every manner of bicycle, carriage, and trolley—in various states of disrepair—furnished the majority of the space. Passing down a long corridor, we came to room stuffed with Indians. In this camp, that same 10’x15’ room housed twelve people. The occupants had lined the walls with Bollywood stars, Indian athletes, and a battered plastic doll. This little reprobate, arrayed in the mangiest ensemble, gaped at us from her perch. All of the men we encountered spoke English remarkably well. They talked of their families and jobs and mentioned that we should go to the kitchen. We bade them goodbye, and they returned to the Indian dance videos flashing on their television. Outside, a Muslim dressed in punjabi pajama and skullcap peered at us inquisitively.

One kitchen, operated by twenty to thirty cooks, services the whole complex. Belaji did not know anyone here, so he told us to walk briskly through the building. The kitchen stands in the CleanCo section. This company provides cleaning services for the malls, office buildings, and restaurants throughout the city. It employs thousands of workers who are recognizable by the maroon jumpsuits that they wear. Working seven days a week with no vacation, they earn 300 Dirhams ($80 US) per month. By accepting an additional five hours per day, they may earn 500 Dirhams monthly. Although we did not enter the CleanCo dorms, their external appearance provided sufficient insight into the living conditions. American cattle certainly enjoy a higher standard of living than this wretched lot.

The kitchen presented the most regrettable scene of the whole day. We navigated a dank corridor, avoiding men that struggled with large pots of rice. The employees gazed at us passively. While Belaji and his companions exuded enthusiasm, the kitchen staff were beaten people. To consume this food would be demoralizing enough. To prepare it daily under these lamentable conditions, with no vacation or leisure time, seems more than a person could bear. One room had vats of rice arranged in a haphazard fashion. The floor was covered in crud. The worst of it seemed towards the rear, but we passed along before exploring that space. Only in this section did Andy note discomfort while snapping photos. We spent less than five minutes in the building and I was so overwhelmed that I cannot now remember many of the finer details.

The remainder of the trip was spent at another cleaning camp. Belaji introduced us to his brother there, a handsome guy clad in a blue jumpsuit. He could not speak English, looking on with the most innocent expression as Belaji ushered us around. Andy performed his trademark card trick before a group of Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. After shuffling the deck, prompting various onlookers to select cards, and various other absurdities, he then presents the incorrect cards and absolves himself of the deed. The crowd, which had grown to about 25 during his demonstration, collapsed into paroxysms of laughter. Several retrieved their friends and demanded an encore. Andy graciously obliged them. Despite the language barriers and the staggering contrast in our respective social stations, we were, for a fleeting moment, companions.

Outrage, followed shortly by a trip to the beach, is the most obvious response to such conditions. Capitalism serves as the usual punching bag. Consider, though, that these paltry salaries represent significant premiums over the going wages in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other Southeast Asian countries. Belaji’s family, for example, has significantly enhanced their position by purchasing land. Aside from the kitchen staff, I would not describe these men as despondent. They have not left their wives and children for a vacation in the Arabian desert, but for the promise of a better life at some future date. Blame the corporations, blame the government, blame the consumer. Don’t forget George Bush (tongue-in-cheek; the international media blames everything on him, from avian flu to the earthquake in Pakistan). This argument is not entirely sufficient. For substantive reform to occur, the culture here must change. Immigrants here are viewed by many locals as chattel. I’ve heard scores of horrendous stories about mistreatment of low-income laborers. Since I’ve received this information through hearsay, I don’t know whether any of it is true. Closing the labor camps would eliminate jobs and shift the problem to another country. Allowing them to remain in operation is obviously unjustifiable. What, then, is the solution? Comments…

Written by Spence

October 24th, 2005 at 1:16 pm

Posted in UAE

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.