x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Passports to hunger and debt

When an assistant at Otaiba and Garg Contracting suddenly found himself with a stack of documents and no job, it was the start of months of hardship.

Babban Ram shows a photograph of his family in India, who have been struggling to get by because he has not been able to send them money.
Babban Ram shows a photograph of his family in India, who have been struggling to get by because he has not been able to send them money.

ABU DHABI // Ram Niwas remembers the day when he suddenly found himself the unlikely custodian of more than 100 passports. As an office assistant to the public relations officer of the Otaiba and Garg Contracting Company, Mr Niwas's suspicions about the state of the business turned into a nightmare when he was handed a stack of passports and asked to distribute them to the workers before his boss disappeared, along with other staff members who worked at the company's headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

"He told me, 'Just give them their passports.' He offered no explanation as to why he asked me to do it," said Mr Niwas. "The next day when I went back to the office, it was still there but nothing was in it. Even the tables and chairs were gone. "So I thought, 'What are these poor workers going to do with only their passports when they need so much more to properly stay in this country? Most can't even read or write.'"

So Mr Niwas took the documents back to the labour camp and explained the situation to the workers, who decided to keep them locked up in a makeshift office he created out of the store room after their salaries stopped altogether in January. "They kept assuring us we would get the money? And then there was no one." What used to be an extensive community of more than 300 workers employed by a contracting company that housed them in three camps has now dwindled to about 100.

They have not been paid for six months, leaving them destitute, without access to basic supplies of food and water. One group of workers who had earlier banded together and taken the company to court after approaching the Ministry of Labour have since taken on new jobs or returned home. However, those left behind are the ones who have been with the company for more than a decade. They feared that a transfer to another company would strip them of their "end of service" benefits, which in some cases amount to Dh56,000 - a valuable package for those who consider it their life savings.

However, after being completely abandoned by their company in January, this group waited a couple of more months before they followed the example of their colleagues and approached the ministry, before being referred to the labour court in March. The 128 cases are still pending in court and have taken much longer than the first batch, the workers claimed. These men were contracted out through the company to a number of jobs on various sites around the city, including mechanical, electrical and construction-related projects.

But in August last year, some of them started to notice that their projects were being stalled. Their pay came sporadically, then work halted altogether and Mr Niwas returned to the camp bearing their passports and nothing else. Workers are required to have valid ID cards issued by the company, along with medical insurance cards and other documentation from their employers proving they are allowed to work and live in the country.

"In that time, we managed somehow," said Kulwinder Kumar. "Then we started borrowing from friends, family. We begged anyone in the other camps we could find we were related to. Our brothers, uncles, friends, relatives, people from our villages." For the first two months, the men also dipped into their savings, but there was not enough because they all sent more than half their salaries home every month.

"It was just for food," said Mr Kumar. "There is no one here who is not in debt of others from other camps. "After some time, even that stopped because they stopped believing we would ever be able to pay it back. "Before they used to come and visit. They would ask us about how we were, then they would sometimes call their families back home and relay our news to our families. "Now they don't come any more because they fear we will only ask for money."

Most have regularly taken loans of Dh50 to Dh100 per week, mostly for food. "This is everyone's story," said Jungul Yadav. "This is the story of debt." Frustrated at the financial troubles, two enterprising young men, Rajesh Kumar Sharma, and Harish Singh Kharwal, decided to take matters into their own hands and start selling samosas. They set up a makeshift stall in the Musaffah labour camps and hawked about 50 samosas a day before they were arrested for lacking proper documentation.

They spent two weeks in jail and were released this week, owing a further Dh3,000 to their camp mates - money they had borrowed to buy supplies for their samosas and to pay the fines to get out of prison. Only one of the three camps is now occupied by the destitute workers. It is on the outskirts of Mohammed bin Zayed City, behind yellow steel doors. There is a common kitchen, where up to four workers share a gas stove, and the communal showers are located beside the kitchen.

Across the courtyard are their living quarters, where 10 workers share a room, and sleep in bunk beds. The other two camps have been leased to other companies, they say, even though their company's board continues to adorn the front of all three. Most of the workers, who spend their days sleeping, fretting and pacing the courtyard, are from India, with some from Bangladesh and Nepal. Babban Ram showed a photograph of himself with one of the company's Indian owners. In it, he is being given a certificate for excellent performance and following the safety procedures.

He also received Dh100, and said it made him proud to be held up as an example to his fellow workers. "Once upon a time, they used to reward us. They were good to us," said Mr Ram. "So why would we not believe in them? "But now, look, what they have done. They have taken away everything from me. Even the dreams for my children." His teenaged son was forced to leave school four months ago because Mr Ram was no longer able to send money home towards his tuition fees.

"For a few months they managed. Once the money stopped, they were forced to stay at home. They tell me now that just come home, no need to send money." Last week, Mr Ram learnt that his son had taken up a few part-time jobs to help defray costs. After The National reported on Friday that the abandoned workers were relying on handouts by local organisations, the Red Crescent Authority stepped in and by Monday night, the men had been given a medical checkup by a doctor and more than Dh5,000 worth of food delivered by Salem al Suwaidi, the head of humanitarian aid with the RCA's Abu Dhabi branch.

Mr Suwaidi took some of the workers to the nearest supermarket and asked them to pick meat, fruit, vegetables and other essentials, including cleaning supplies. "I don't want them to worry about food or medicine any more," said Mr Suwaidi. "As long as they are here, I will keep an eye on them. We didn't know before but if we had, we would have helped immediately." Mr Suwaidi returned yesterday evening to take four workers who need immediate medical attention to hospital.

Today, he will return with a doctor for another round of checkups and hopes to provide the men with necessary medication, including for those who suffer from diabetes. "Today it is little but I will come whenever I can. They can call me in case of an emergency but I will manage everything." Mr Suwaidi is also arranging clothing for the workers and hopes to bring a batch of donated men's shirts to the camp later this week.

Mahinder Singh, 63, from Punjab, is one of the most senior members at the camp. He has worked for the company for the past 25 years. But since January he has not been able to send money home or pay for medical treatment. He suffers from a host of medical complications including diabetes, arthritis and poor eyesight. However, on Monday night, he was able to call home and talk to his daughter-in-law, thanks in part to a programme run by the RCA, called Calling without Boundaries, where volunteers let workers use their mobile phones to make long-distance calls.

"I spoke for five minutes and that was enough because it brought tears to my eyes," said Mr Singh. "But it made me very happy and it made my family very happy also. "They asked about my health. Previously, I used to tell them, 'What can I say?' but for the first time in a long time I told them that a doctor had come to the camp and I was going to be OK. "They wanted me to give them a specific date of my return but that is the only thing I couldn't give them."