x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Desperate lives of Dubai's car washers

With freelance construction jobs hard to find, undocumented labourers live in squalor and fight over chance to clean a Mercedes for Dh5.

Mohammed Maamoun, an unemployed Bangladeshi who washes cars in the street, lives in an abandoned and roofless villa in the Satwa district of Dubai.
Mohammed Maamoun, an unemployed Bangladeshi who washes cars in the street, lives in an abandoned and roofless villa in the Satwa district of Dubai.

DUBAI // Mohammed Maamoun's short stay in Dubai has been defined by the sort of vagaries typically associated with street life in his native Dhaka, Bangladesh's frenetic capital. When he is not scratching out a living by washing cars, he stays in an abandoned, roofless villa with scores of other undocumented workers. When it rains, he sleeps under grimy buses parked nearby. Competition to earn as little as Dh5 for scrubbing Mercedes-Benzes and Escalades is stiffening, he and dozens of illegal workers in Dubai's Satwa area said. An economy with fewer opportunities for freelance construction work has forced more of them into the car-cleaning trade, prompting price wars and turf battles and generally making it more difficult to scrape by. "Those other washers told me to stay away from their area because they said it was theirs," said Mr Maamoun, 30, who still wears the tattered blue trousers and pinstriped dress shirt he pulled out of a rubbish bin five months ago. "I've gone to other areas for work but people there also told me I had to leave." The phenomenon of undocumented workers in the UAE who turn to cleaning vehicles has become an issue, said Uma Pady, an independent social worker who helps the Indian consulate with labour-related issues. Although the absolute numbers of illegal workers appear to have fallen to about 7,000 people, she said, more are resorting to washing vehicles because of stricter regulations enforcement by labour officials and fewer opportunities for freelance work. That is reflecting on Mr Maamoun's ability to earn a living. On good days, he said, he can make Dh25, just enough for some bread, some tea and possibly a brief phone call to his wife and six-year-old son in Bangladesh. On bad days, he wanders from car park to car park in search of work, hoping to avoid altercations with rivals as well as arrest by the authorities. "People are losing their jobs, so they come here," said Mr Maamoun as he showed off his abandoned villa, its floors strewn with plastic bottles and the detritus from its crumbling blue walls. Some of the workers remained in the country after their work visas were terminated. Others are still being brought in on false promises made by unscrupulous recruitment agents. Either way, said Mrs Pady, the effects can be tragic. "Some are lucky because the community helps to feed them but sometimes they don't have access to enough food, just Arabic bread dipped in water," she said. "There's not as much work in Dubai now and they have the added disadvantage of not having their passports."

Mr Maamoun said his passport was taken from him by a recruitment agent when he arrived in the UAE in January. He said he paid the agent Dh10,000 for a visa. "My father sold off the family house and a cow so that I could get the money to come here," he said. The agent's promises of a stable job and salary never materialised and his recruitment agent is nowhere to be found. "I don't know if I'll ever get home now," he said. "Maybe I'll die here." While authorities say non-licensed car washers are a known problem in Dubai, their presence is not a "worrying trend", said Lt Col Ahmad bin Ghalita, the director of the Dubai police's crime prevention department. "We do carry out precautionary measures in areas where we feel that intervention is needed," he said. Mr Maamoun, who has managed to avoid the authorities so far, has found intermittent construction work with one of his car-washing competitors, Malaysium Gangaram, 55, from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. They were hired as freelancers by contractors known as supply companies. However, those contractors are not recruiting as frequently of late, most likely a result of the recession's impact on construction in Dubai. "With the supply companies sometimes I would make Dh900 a month," said Mr Gangaram, whose friends hand-deliver notes to his wife in India when they go for a visit because he cannot afford a mobile phone. "For the past three or four months I haven't had a salary. There's no work. I had some savings but I spent it all on food." He left India three years ago because a severe drought wilted the vegetables grown on the farm where he worked. He also had his passport confiscated when he arrived and now wonders how he will return home. In the meantime, from the shade of a tree near a Satwa car park, Mr Gangaram and a half dozen or so cleaners sprint towards every approaching vehicle offering their services. "Every day, every single day, both when I arrive and leave I'm approached by one," said Eric Schunnesson, 30, a Swede who passes through the car-cleaner gauntlet on his way to work in a financial services business. "They're really nice guys but I already have a cleaner at home." hnaylor@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Wafa Issa