x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Death fire warehouse was illegal labour camp

A warehouse where four workers died in a fire had been illegally modified into accommodation, an official says.

ABU DHABI // A warehouse in Musaffah where four workers died and another was injured in a fire had been illegally used for labour housing.

"It started due to an electrical short circuit," said Abdulaziz Hussni Zurub, the health, safety and environment division manager at the municipality. "The warehouse is a very dangerous area."

Mr Zurub's department has been campaigning against illegal labour accommodation since 2009.

The action taken against those in charge of the warehouse would be strict, he said, adding warehouses can be legally modified but not turned into accommodation.

Firefighters from Abu Dhabi Civil Defence were called to the warehouse on Thursday last week at 5.50am.

About 400 men from more than a dozen companies had been living in the two-storey building. Municipality officials have said the building had no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire extinguishers.

Three Nepalese men and one Bangladeshi worker died at the scene from smoke inhalation.

The men had been due to stay at the warehouse for between 10 and 20 days, said Mr Santhosh Kuriakosse, the managing director of StarMark Real Estate and General Maintenance, which leased the building from another company.

The men were to be moved into accommodation at the nearby Industrial City of Abu Dhabi (Icad). They worked for Costain Abu Dhabi.

Costain, which describes itself as being involved in the gas and oil industry, said it was closely liaising with fire investigators and providing all necessary assistance.

It said it would wait until the investigation was completed and the findings released before it could comment any further.

The company's other workers have since been moved into their Icad housing. One Nepalese worker said the bodies of the four workers were repatriated yesterday.

The warehouse is owned by Al Sultan Ready Mix and Pre-cast Concrete, the head office of which overlooks the damaged building.

"We just rented it out," said one staff member, who would not give his name. "We own it but we have rented it to StarMark, and they have changed it. We are not interfering with what they are doing."

The warehouse had been empty for two years before StarMark rented it, he said.

The owner of Al Sultan was unavailable for comment.

No charges have been filed yet, although the owners of the companies have been helping police with their inquiries. Abu Dhabi Police were unavailable for comment.

The owners of StarMark and Al Sultan were taken into police custody last week and held overnight, said Mr Kuriakosse.

StarMark, which has been operating in the area for five years, was unaware that the warehouse should not have been used as a labour camp, he said.

He said the area was rife with illegally modified accommodation.

"Eighty per cent in the Musaffah area have been converted into illegal homes," said Mr Kuriakosse, whose passport has been confiscated by Abu Dhabi Police. "We can show you."

StarMark had not taken part in any illegal activity, he said.

"Let me explain to you, we only took this three months ago," Mr Kuriakosse said. "We have a contract. We are proper."

A photocopied tenancy contract obtained by The National listed the warehouse as a labour camp. According to the document, StarMark began renting the warehouse on June 9.

Although he visited the warehouse several times, Mr Kuriakosse said the company was not aware of any legal problems.

"No, I didn't know, because we had the agreement [contract]. I visited every 10 to 15 days," he said.

The company had a certificate from Abu Dhabi Civil Defence stating it had no objection to the warehouse, Mr Kuriakosse said. "If this was illegal, they would not have given this paper."

But the document, which was dated five days after the fire, is a notice from Abu Dhabi Civil Defence allowing the landowner to turn the electricity in the warehouse back on.

Golden Corner Printing Press, which had 10 workers living in one room at the warehouse, said the staff had moved into the accommodation in February.

The company was not aware of any legal problems with the warehouse, said a manager, who would not give his name.

The workers, who were moved out of the warehouse last Friday, are living in a legal labour camp, he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Kuriakosse continued to wait for a verdict.

"When the legal procedure is finished I can get my passport," he said.

 

zalhassani@thenational.ae