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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Special report: A look inside UAE labour accommodation living conditions

Improvement in living conditions at accommodation on Saadiyat supported by international employment conventions.
Workers have lunch during their mid-shift break. Christopher Pike / The National
Workers have lunch during their mid-shift break. Christopher Pike / The National

ABU DHABI // Nine international conventions ratified by the UAE underpin improvements to the living and working conditions of thousands of migrant workers, an investigation by The National has established.

Issues covered by the agreements include health and safety, working hours, workplace inspections and a ban on the use of forced or child labour. The UAE signed up to them between 1982 and 2001, and in 2006 became the first country in the region to enact a law against human trafficking.

The National visited labour accommodation for 7,000 workers on Saadiyat Island to interview residents and staff, and gauge their views.

The workers’ village has a recreation centre with a grocery, a mobile-phone shop, a cafe, a gym with dedicated trainer, a recreation centre with billiards and table tennis, a library with books in nine languages and televisions running multilingual news reports in several languages.

The accommodation also has a lawn the size of two football pitches, where workers gather most nights to play cricket, lounge outdoors or attend special events.

“Look, we don’t have to do these things,” said Hisham Sidani, operations manager at Hirmas Real Estate, which manages the accommodation.

“We do them because we want the men to be comfortable and happy, and then we’ll have quality work on the other side.”

Despite general satisfaction among residents, one perennial problem remains. “Everything is good except the food,” said Raj Kumar, from the northern Indian state of Punjab.

Catering chiefs say it is difficult to please everyone when they feed people of different nationalities, but they do their best to vary the menu.

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Part two now available: Abu Dhabi invests in worker comfort

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TDIC improves lives of Saadiyat workers

ABU DHABI // The UAE has signed up to nine International Labour Organisation conventions for workers’ rights, and in 2006 became the first in the region to enact a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law.

These conventions spurred Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company to further improve the quality of life for 7,000 employees in workers’ villages on Saadiyat Island.

“We have been the target of different groups claiming that the workers’ welfare on Saadiyat Island is not up to standard,” says Bassem Terkawi, senior director of marketing and communication at the TDIC.

“We looked at it very carefully at the beginning and approached this from a genuine place.”

The TDIC introduced a “workers’ welfare project” that addresses key points for improvements in workers’ accommodation.

These were highlighted by a report in December last year, issued by independent auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The company was hired to write annual reports on the conditions at the TDIC’s labour lodgings.

One of the hot topics is workers’ access to their passports, which the TDIC has addressed with outside contractors.

“In our contract is a clause that says that contractors must give their workers access to their passports,” Mr Terkawi says.

“If it is not resolved we have a set of penalties. It’s happened before and we’ve taken care of these complaints, going as far as terminating contracts.”

The 20,000-capacity accommodation houses labourers working on projects including the Guggenheim and the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The TDIC hopes to finish the ambitious projects more efficiently by improving the quality of life for the workers.

“Look, we don’t have to do these things,” says Hisham Sidani, operations manager at Hirmas Real Estate, which is responsible for managing the workers’ accommodation. “We do them because we want them to be comfortable and happy, and then we’ll have quality work on the other side.”

Less than 10 minutes from the Saadiyat Cultural Centre, the workers’ village has a grocery, a mobile phone shop, cafe, and a gymnasium with a dedicated trainer.

It has a recreation centre with billiards and table tennis, a library with books in nine languages and televisions running news reports in several languages.

The village also has an outdoor lawn the size of two football pitches, where workers gather on most nights to play cricket, lounge outdoors or attend special events organised by Hirmas.

“One of the things I’m keen on keeping up is the food,” Mr Sidani says. “These young boys, they come from home and they’re used to mama’s food, they’re expecting the same mama’s food to be served here, and we have a challenge.”

To solve that, the camp has established a food committee.

Representatives of the residents meet chefs and the catering manager every month to relay complaints, make suggestions and suggest changes to the menu.

The menu rotates monthly, with no single dish repeated in a two-week period.

However, with so many mouths to feed, the kitchen prioritises quality and cleanliness over regional tastes.

“We find that we are balancing. An example is that Pakistanis like oils, Bengalis like less oil,” says Georges El Ghoul, the village catering manager. “I’m not from that region so I don’t know but we are adjusting every month.”

The kitchen is divided into stations where about 10 tonnes of food a day is cooked in the style of several different cuisines to accommodate national tastes.

Sanitation and health are considered top priorities.

Samples of every dish are refrigerated for 72 hours so they can be sent to labs for testing if any worker complains of suffering food poisoning.

“As a labour camp, this is excellent,” Mr El Ghoul says. “I’ve worked 25 years in catering in this country.

“I’ve worked for big hotels and I can tell you their kitchens aren’t much better than this.”

The camp kitchen follows a management system that dictates how food is processed, prepared and cooked to ensure its cleanliness.

“We are constantly looking to improve, so this will be our policy,” Mr Sidani said.

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More coverage on this topic:

Life on Saadiyat: catering staff try to please different palates

UAE has ratified nine international labour conventions

Passport retention by UAE companies less common

A tour of the Saadiyat Accommodation Village - in pictures

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About this package:

The UAE has signed up to nine International Labour Organisation conventions to protect workers’ rights, and in 2006 was the first country in the region to enact a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law. These conventions spurred the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) to improve the quality of life for 7,000 employees living in workers villages on Saadiyat island. While most workers say they are satisfied with life in Saadiyat Accommodation Village, many have voiced concern about the poor taste of the food. Despite criticism, the purchasing power of the dirham in Southest Asian countries remains a major factor in attracting expatriates to the UAE. Similarly, concerns over passport retention have decreased as the practice has become less common in the UAE.

nalwasmi@thenational.ae