x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Relocation for 100,000 labourers

Current camps lack safety features and reliable transport, but companies fear new housing will be too costly and lower profits.

Workers, and taxi drivers sell and buy fruit and vegetables in a make shift market between labour camps in Mussafah East.
Workers, and taxi drivers sell and buy fruit and vegetables in a make shift market between labour camps in Mussafah East.

ABU DHABI // More than 100,000 workers are to be relocated from labour camps at Mohammed bin Zayed City and housed elsewhere to make the area purely residential. In a meeting yesterday at Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, representatives of companies that house labourers in the area were told that the relocation of the workers away from residential areas that house Emiratis had become "inevitable" and should happen in the next two months.

The companies are waiting for word from the Government on how much it will cost them to house their workers in new locations. Some fear it will cost them double to house their staff compared to what they pay now in Mohammed bin Zayed City. Falah al Ahbabi, the general manager of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, said at the meeting: "Having labourers reside in MBZ city, which has become a predominantly Emirati residential area and is family designated, is no longer acceptable and is undesirable."

He said that, with the current population growth and the longer term strategic plans for Abu Dhabi, there needed to be a minimum standard of living for all. "The current labour camps in MBZ do not have proper safety and security features for the workers, transportation is not always readily available, and it is lacking in humanitarian needs," he said. "This reflects badly on us as a government, and so we had to remedy this situation."

Many of the workers can expect to be moved into housing being built in the Al Mafraq and Hamim Bridge areas, where new residential complexes with capacity for up to 130,000 labourers have been built. But companies fear they will have to cover any increase in rents. Workers currently pay about Dh250 (US$68) a month in rent - normally deducted from their salaries - but may soon have to pay upwards of Dh1,000, which might mean the companies will have to raise salaries accordingly.

The companies expressed concern they would not be able to move all their workers by the deadline, especially with the approach of Ramadan, and said they should have been informed sooner. They also complained that transportation costs to and from the new site would mount. Al Mafraq, for example, is 45km from Abu Dhabi city centre. Dr Asad al Haidari, a representative from Al Sahel Trading Group, said he had 4,000 labourers in MBZ city.

"It costs each worker around Dh200 per month for rent right now, and that might go up to more than Dh500," he said. "Also, workers today cook on their own, not spending more than Dh100 to Dh200 a month on food, which is their own responsibility. "These new complexes want to provide catering as well and improve standard of living, which is fine, but the cost will go up to around Dh650 or Dh750 for food a month, for each worker.

"How is a worker with an average salary of Dh950 supposed to afford that? How will companies afford to increase salaries so much and lose out on profit completely? There has to be a solution or some form of compensation." Some companies further suggested these higher costs might discourage labourers from coming to work in the UAE. Talal Khouri, the chairman of Al Awael Holding, a conglomerate with construction interests, said a possible solution could be for the Government to give the companies plots of land to build their own residences for labourers.

"If you cannot compensate us, then at least allow us to build better housing, with the standards that you require, but for less cost for us," Mr Khouri said. "Yes, MBZ city is a very unhealthy environment and cannot be allowed to continue, but the overhead costs for us if we go according to your plan will be too much." The Government is arguing that these increased costs will mean a better standard of living for workers, and although employers agree with the need for better housing, they say workers' total monthly costs, including both rent and food, should not exceed Dh750.

Khadem al Muhairi, the chief executive of ZonesCorp, the higher corporation for specialised economic zones, insisted that this was not just a question of economics, but rather a humanitarian and national concern. "The labour camps in Mohammed bin Zayed city were built according to minimal standards," he said. "To become one of the top five governments in the world, we also have to work on implementing human rights, and this will cost us. We have to accept these costs, and provide better housing for these workers."

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has called for labourer accommodation to meet internationally recognised standards to create a safe and healthy environment for all workers across the UAE. Salah al Shamsi, the chairman of the chamber of commerce, said his organisation was acting as mediator between the planning council and the companies to facilitate housing for workers. "We have to do this as soon as possible, today before tomorrow, really," he said. "We have been talking about the need to get this done for months now, and postponing our deadline. We need to get this done and deal with it."

Mr al Ahbabi said a meeting would be convened in two weeks to continue the discussion with the private sector. @Email:hkhalaf@thenational.ae