x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Harsh realities of life on the wrong side of the law

Illegal worker Iqbal Masoud, 38, knows the police are on the lookout for cases like his, but he hopes to continue evading the authorities.

ABU DHABIi // Iqbal Masoud has had two things to worry about every morning for the past two months - finding someone willing to hire him and steering clear of the police. The 38-year-old Pakistani came to the UAE in early September on a visit visa, hoping to find a job, then obtain a residency visa and build a new life for himself. An unskilled worker with no education, he failed to find a fixed job so he could not extend his residency. He has been living outside the law since October when his visit visa expired.

Mr Masoud chose to stay after he was reassured by his friends that he would find plenty of people to hire him, despite his status as an illegal immigrant. "I didn't have a lot of money, and had debts. My friends advised me to stay, and everything is fine now. Once in a while, I find someone to work for," Mr Masoud said. On average, he works four days a week and earns Dh75 (US$20) a day. He does all kinds of work, from cleaning at construction sites after a project is finished to helping people move their furniture.

Mr Masoud lives with six friends and they each pay just under Dh300 a month in rent. He said he had heard of some employers refusing to pay the Dh75, taking advantage of the fact that an illegal worker cannot complain to the police. It has not happened to him, though. "These days, I am not doing very well. Maybe there aren't many projects and I don't have plenty of contacts. Bigger companies are working, but they have their own contacts," he said.

Mr Masoud knows the police are on the lookout for cases like his, but he hopes to continue evading the law. Experts say workers like him number in the thousands, with the largest concentrations living in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. He was coached by his colleagues on how to spot a potential employer and how to avoid undercover police. Both employers and workers have familiar codes they use to identify each other. And employers know where their potential workers are located.

Illegal workers, according to one businessman, can be found in industrial areas and on some city streets. Contractors will park their cars near a group of workers and tell them what type of work is on offer, such as carpentry or construction. Mr Masoud prefers to work in residential areas and do jobs required by families, in an attempt to avoid surprise inspections by police. He does not know how long he will stay in the country. That depends on how much money he makes over the next year - and whether the police catch him.