x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tough new safety regime for camps

RAK Civil Defence warns that companies could be closed if they disregard basic requirements for labour accommodation.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The Civil Defence department has promised to carry out surprise daily inspections at labour camps, fining and even closing companies that do not meet safety standards. Mohammad al Zaabi, the new director of Civil Defence in RAK, was speaking after the fire on Saturday at a Strabag labour camp in Digdaga, in which 32 cabins were destroyed and nearly 200 men lost their belongings and savings.

He said he would train more inspection teams to ensure that no part of the emirate was overlooked. "Cabins must be spaced properly, circuits should not be overloaded and cooking areas must be separated," he said. Airconditioning units must be in good condition and electricity should be switched off when not being used. Companies would be given one warning before they were reported to the Ministry of Labour.

Inspections would be unannounced and violators risked having their businesses closed down. He said the greatest challenge for Civil Defence was monitoring the growing number of camps that had not registered with the Federal Electricity and Water Authority. Labour camps require a letter of approval from Civil Defence before they receive electricity. However, many operate on generators, which enable them to bypass mandatory inspections and ignore basic safety requirements.

To assist employers, Mr al Zaabi said Civil Defence was offering inexpensive one week courses in fire prevention. "Fires start small," said Lt Col Dr Jassim al Modareb, the department's director of operations. "If people know fire protection they will be safe." Camps should ensure fire alarms were fitted in all accommodation cabins and training should be mandatory, he added. Civil Defence employees welcomed the new strategy. But many believed it would take a complete overhaul to improve labour camp safety.

"They make cabins from wood, they don't have fire extinguishers, they don't have basic rules for safety," said one employee. "We are really co-operating with companies," said another employee. But he added that if the situation did not change, workers "will get hurt - be sure of that". "If we go back three years ago, we didn't have construction like now," the Civil Defence worker said. "But now we have big camps and some of the camps are really far from Civil Defence.

"Yesterday in Showkah [in the south of the emirate] we inspected a labour camp of 96 cabins. "It was more than an hour and a half from here and maybe more than 70km from the nearest Civil Defence station." There are only two fire stations in Ras al Khaimah, one in the city centre and one in the north of the emirate. A third, in Kadra, an hour south of the city, will open next month. Saturday's blaze was the third serious fire at a labour camp in the emirate in five weeks. In May, four cabins were destroyed after an electrical short-circuit sparked a fire at a city construction site, then three weeks later a blaze in Shimal razed six cabins.

A Strabag spokesman who works at the Digdaga camp said many labourers had reached the end of their contracts and were only days from returning home with their savings, which they had kept in their cabins. Some lost thousands of dirhams that they had saved from months of labour on the new Al Naeem Mall. "The feeling here is very bad," said the spokesman. "Some were crying. They have lost everything."

He said company had given the men financial assistance, and more would be provided once when the total losses were known. azacharias@thenational.ae