x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Labourer housing is a safety priority

Another fatal fire, this time in Abu Dhabi's Musaffah industrial area earlier this month, underscores the unsafe conditions that still plague labourers' accommodations.

They are soggy by sunrise and exhausted by sundown. During the peak heat season, construction workers get a midday break, but for the most part otherwise keep to their schedule when almost everyone else is huddled under air conditioning. After that hard work - and contribution to the economy - it should be a great comfort to return home for the day.

Except "home" is not all that it is supposed to be in some cases. It's an issue that affects every emirate. It was only three years ago when the Deira fire, one of the worst in Dubai's recent history, killed 11 men and exposed the dire living conditions at their villa: massive overcrowding, a woefully insufficient water supply, and faulty electrical wiring.

Another fatal fire, this time in Abu Dhabi's Musaffah industrial area earlier this month, and another four dead, has exposed similar unsafe conditions. Obviously worker housing continues to rely on illegally converted villas and townhouses. Not only are too many men crammed together for any degree of comfort, but the conditions create fire hazards as well.

Last year there were an estimated 1.5 million foreign labourers working in the construction industry in the UAE. These men usually work here about three to four years and generally rely on company-provided housing. And, of course, there are basic economic reasons that cause companies, especially small ones, to cut corners with shoddy housing.

In the past few years there have been considerable efforts to improve worker housing, from guaranteeing minimum living space to building recreational facilities and proper sanitation. But that is in facilities that operate in the open. After the recent fire, a property agent estimate was that 80 per cent of Musaffah was covered in illegal conversions.

Government officials are aware of the problem. In Abu Dhabi there have been several inspections at villas that have been illegally subdivided, but many of these actions are initiated by tenant complaints or other issues that attract the notice of the Municipality. For a number of reasons, including language and cultural barriers, many workers may be less likely to report housing violations - particularly if it means blowing the whistle on their employer.

Basic housing guarantees are now offered to most workers. It is a matter of enforcing the law and changing widespread practices. As we have seen, it's not just a matter of comfort, but of safety.