Friday, August 04, 2006

Laborers 2

As reported in Laborers 1, the situation in the UAE for laborers at present is a fluid one. That is, a lot of changes are taking place—with regard to working conditions, issues of pay, living conditions, worker action, government response and public reaction. If the measure of progress were only a question of how much change there has been, then one could say that there has been substantial progress on the issue of laborer conditions over the past 3 to 4 years. But all change, of course, has not necessarily been for the better.

Continuing Problems

On the one hand, the ever-increasing numbers in the laborer population have led to more strain on the limited resources provided these workers. Shortages of accommodation, food, water, uniforms and work gear arise. Also, workers tend to experience more delays in getting to and from their worksites. Sometimes, apparent solutions or improvements lead to new problems. Workers, for example, being spared the hardship of working during the hottest hours of the day (typically 12 noon to 3:30 p.m.), often end up spending longer days at the worksite. This is often due to the inability of companies to efficiently transport them to and from their accommodations, to rest at during this break. Alternatively some are required to start their work shifts in the darkened pre-dawn hours.

One result of this increasing level of hardship is the greater likelihood that workers will attempt illegal strikes or work stoppages. There are reports of laborers attributing such actions of protest to not only issues of poor facilities or non-payment of salaries, but also to issues of abuse (verbal and otherwise) by superiors and employers. Tempers are flaring on both sides and in general these men are not treated with the respect they deserve.

A case in point is a recent restriction on entry by such workers to Ibn Batutta Mall, one of the largest and most popular new shopping venues in Dubai. It is argued that such workers, who tend to visit shopping centers in groups, especially on Fridays their usual day off, are in violation of the shopping center’s dress code—that is, their civilian wear is not up to the standards of such an establishment. (On one local blog this new policy inspired a rather heated debate.) While their services were more than welcome in construction of the property and its ongoing maintenance, these men are not welcome during their off-hours.

Welcome Changes

The more significant point to make, however, regarding change in the circumstances for laborers, is that much of that change has in fact been for the better. A clear illustration of this is provided by the innumerable improvements made in the Al Quoz district of Dubai, which houses one of the largest concentration of laborers in the UAE. The district is a mixed-use industrial area with a concentration of warehouse and storage facilities in one sector and labor and staff accommodations in another.

Typically, laborer or staff accommodation is set up in a 2-4 storey dormitory type structure running lengthwise, with rooms on either side of a long corridor. Three or four years ago these structures were often poorly constructed, poorly lit, over-crowded, unsanitary and dilapidated. Furthermore, the streets and plots upon which they were built were un-paved or poorly surfaced and unlit with very few facilities—i.e. shops or restaurants—to serve the large population. In the evenings hundreds of workers would walk along and jay-walk across the dark dusty roads, always in danger of being hit by oncoming traffic.

Al Quoz today is almost unrecognizable, compared to what it was just 3 or 4 years ago. Although the laborer population in the area has doubled or tripled, many of the housing structures are new or renovated. Still over-crowded and unsanitary, due mostly to over-crowdedness, these structures are generally sturdily built and well lit. It appears that in response to new Dubai regulations, common areas are often tiled. Where sand and dust were everywhere before, one can enter some camps (as they are commonly referred) and even find ceramic or granite tiles in open areas.

Furthermore, the roads are paved and lit with streetlights, some restaurants and shops can be found, and even a large new shopping center has been opened. Where the Al Quoz housing area used to resemble a slum or shantytown, it is now a thriving community. In the evenings the workers used to appear dejected and desperate as they darted across dark and dusty paths, whereas today they seem busy and pre-occupied with taking care of life’s needs.

The changes in Al Quoz, while still inadequate, represent a substantial improvement for these workers. Over-crowding is still a serious issue and in many cases getting worse, due to the sheer increase in the numbers of workers required to complete the multitude of new projects. In laborer accommodations 10-20 men still share a single room. (The numbers much smaller in staff accommodations.) There are still generally no recreational facilities, and transport from the camps to central city areas is another chronic problem. It is clear that these issues will also have to be dealt with, before anyone can say that these workers have received their due.

But, clearly, the picture is getting better—at least in terms of residential facilities and at least in Al Quoz.

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Popular UAE blogger, Secret Dubai, offers tribute to the "boys in blue" in a poem, Ode to the Outcasts.

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