x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Labourers say they are unwelcome

From malls to parks to beaches, many places for relaxing and recreation are off-limits for those seen as the underclass, workers claim.

Many foreign construction workers feel uncomfortable in Abu Dhabi.
Many foreign construction workers feel uncomfortable in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Imran Mahtab takes a rest to eat a biscuit during his midday break. His blue overalls are partly unbuttoned and his T-shirt underneath is soaked with sweat. But sometimes Mr Mahtab and his brother Irfan spend hours trying to change the way they look. It is the only way, they say, that they can gain entrance to a mall - or many other parts of the capital. The process is so time-consuming they do it only once a month, he says.

On the side of their construction site near Muroor Road, Imran says: "We have to wear clean clothes that we try to iron first. Then we have to clean our shoes and make them shiny. We also have to shave and oil and comb our hair. All that is too much to do every Friday." For many people, Friday is a day of rest and relaxation, or for spending in quiet contemplation at the mosque. But for workers, from labourers and taxi drivers to mechanics, it is the only day of the week they can put down their tools and run errands, play a sport with friends or take a stroll down the Corniche.

During the sweltering summer in particular, they have limited options and, without a chance to venture outside, most find a few hours of relief at the shopping malls. Several workers said that with so little choice for thngs to do, they preferred staying in their quarters rather than face the daunting task of going to a mall where, they said, they were often confronted by security for "loitering".

Although no rules are in place - such as those at Bawadi Mall in Al Ain - preventing workers from parts of the city, their sense of not belonging is such that they feel much of Abu Dhabi remains off-limits. "I think I am afraid," said Ghulam Ali Chotun, a construction worker from Bangladesh, when asked about whether he would visit parks near the public beach. "What if they turn me away?" Khalid Din, a taxi driver from Pakistan, does not venture on to the Corniche after Friday afternoon prayers any more. After a humiliating incident a few months ago, he now stays indoors.

Mr Din and his friends had tried accessing the public area of the beach, which they knew was not reserved for women and families, but were denied. They tried purchasing tickets but were turned away. He was told the entire beach was reserved for families. "I felt bad," he said. "Those who look poor are not allowed." "We have seen the Corniche being built," he added. "We are proud of it. We liked walking there all the time. Not now. It is too hot for that, but even in the evenings, I don't go there any more."

Last July, weeks after Abu Dhabi's new public beach opened, a Dh10 (US$2.70) charge was introduced for men unaccompanied by women. Salem al Maameri, the director of municipal services with Abu Dhabi Municipality, said at the time that some women had complained of harassment. "We have had lots of complaints from people that men are just watching them and their families," he said, adding that the men were mostly "labourers" who visited the beach in hundreds at weekends.

Surinder Singh has been a construction worker in Abu Dhabi for almost three years. A tall young man from India with caramel highlights in his hair, he and his friends gather on Fridays to travel to Dubai. Although the journey is long, they feel the welcome is warmer there. They relax in Bur Dubai or Deira, where they stroll through shops and eat Indian street food. "In Abu Dhabi, the scope is limited," he said. "There are the malls and the Corniche, and even that is shut out to us. In the malls, there is an uncomfortable feeling around us if there are too many of us. The security will follow us around. And I don't want to spend my only day off in the week walking in the mall alone, without my friends. That is the only way the security guards will not pay attention to you."

Mr Singh said his friends had been stopped on occasion and asked to state the intent of their visit and how long they intended to stay. "Sometimes even the security guards tell us they don't mean to be rude," he said. "They tell us that they don't want to get in trouble for letting us in or letting us walk around aimlessly. Because there is a difference. "We are not high class. We are low class, and that is how we are made to feel with the stares and looks from others around us."

Malls in Dubai and Abu Dhabi said they had no policies in place explicitly banning labourers, although many said they would act if complaints about large groups of men were lodged. Mohammed Norman, the manager of Al Wahda Mall, said the mall was "a community centre - there should be no discrimination between labourers and other people." He said security workers were particularly vigilant on Fridays, when there are large numbers of families in the mall.

"We have more surveillance on [labourers], but we don't tell them to go unless they are causing problems," he said. "That would be un-Islamic." Any problems, the workers say, are caused by just a few people. Zulfikar Ali Jafri, a soft-spoken, middle-aged construction worker from Pakistan, said he preferred quiet contemplation on Jummah, or Friday, but had seen groups of men following unaccompanied women who were walking on the Corniche.

Sometimes, he said, the groups played music on their mobile phones and stood around in large groups while watching certain parts of the beach where women swim or play sports. "We don't have problems because we don't look at other people," Mr Jafri said. "I think the younger ones are the subject of scrutiny. Sometimes they misbehave. We try to talk to them but they won't listen to us." Nisar Rahman, a foreman in his 40s from Pakistan, said he found public places "overwhelming".

"I just feel uncomfortable. Those places are not meant for us." Pointing to a group of younger workers, he said: "Everyone is punished because of a few that misbehave." sbhattacharya@thenational.ae * additional reporting by Loveday Morris and Nour Samaha