x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Workers left in camp rely on handouts

Indian embassy intervenes to feed and treat more than 100 labourers after local groups say they can no longer cope.

An Indian cook at a camp in Mussafah where labourers have had to rely on food handouts.
An Indian cook at a camp in Mussafah where labourers have had to rely on food handouts.

ABU DHABI // Local organisations have stepped in to feed more than 100 labourers stranded in their camp for about six months without pay after, it is suspected, their employer went bust. The men, mostly Indian, with others from Bangladesh and Nepal, have for the past three months been relying on social and cultural groups, which have given them food, water and legal aid.

The camp is on the outskirts of Mohammed bin Zayed City. Groups such as the Kerala Social Centre and Shakti Theatre have been caring for the workers but officials from the Indian embassy intervened recently when the task of feeding the labourers every day became too much for the organisations. A lawyer has also been enlisted to help the men - whose passports are in the possession of their employer - make claims at the labour court in Abu Dhabi, so they can retain their legal status in the UAE.

"We want to get out of this quagmire but we cannot," said Yamna Singh Yadav, 54, a foreman, from Uttar Pradesh in India. "Visas have expired as well as permits. We are in limbo. All we ask the court is that those who want to work here get clearances, and those who want to return home get a safe passage." The men have been without access to hospital care. As the summer months have grown hotter, they have had only intermittent electricity and water supply. Salaries have not been paid since January, according to the workers and embassy officials.

The men began noticing that some of the company's projects had stalled in September last year, about the time that their pay became erratic, before it stopped completely. "We kept hearing assurances that work will start tomorrow, then the next day," said Ram Niwas, who worked as an office assistant at the company's headquarters in Abu Dhabi. "Then work stopped altogether." Some of the men are afraid to leave the compound of their living quarters out of fear of being arrested for not having valid documents.

Mahinder Singh, 63, from Punjab, suffers from diabetes, hypertension, poor eyesight and arthritis. 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 treatment. "There is a sense of complete helplessness here. We huddle in our rooms and sleep off our pains," he said. Babban Singh Yadav, 49, from Uttar Pradesh, says not being able to send money to their families has had its effects back home. Most workers used to send up to 8,000 rupees (Dh600) each month.

"Families at home cannot comprehend what is going on," he said. "They cannot understand what state we are in. They have no idea why the money is not coming any more. "They think we are not sending money back home and keeping it in our pockets. When we tell them that we have lost our jobs, they ask why we cannot come home." Most of the workers said their children had been forced to leave school at home because their fees had not been paid. The marriage of one worker's sister was postponed several times before it was cancelled, because he was unable to send money for the wedding.

Sugriv Sharma, from Bihar, is no longer aware of the whereabouts of his wife and children, after they were evicted eight months ago from their rental home because of non-payment of rent. Kishore Rathore, 42, from Gujarat, has been unable to attend his father's funeral. His father died three months ago but, in the Hindu tradition, the son must perform the last rites. The family has been unable to do without Mr Rathore's presence, so his father's ashes remain in an urn in his home.

Ellan Govan, the community welfare officer at the Indian embassy, visited the site at the end of last month after he was approached by several Indian organisations that had been helping the men. "They were left to fend for themselves. They had no idea what was happening," said Mr Govan. "They have no employer, no sponsor. They are just languishing in the camp." The embassy has supplied food that will last for the next 20 days. It is monitoring the court case between the workers and the company which it hopes will be resolved in the next two months.

Some of the sick men were taken to a free medical camp run by the Ahalia Hospital Group in Musaffah. "We are hoping the courts will deliver," said Mr Govan. "In the meantime, we are preparing documents for those who want to leave. We are also compiling a list of those who are in immediate need of medical assistance." The men work for a company that was established in 1977 and specialises in contracting and construction services. Attempts to reach the management via phone calls and e-mail yesterday were unsuccessful.

Last month, more than 100 workers for a Sharjah construction company filed complaints in Dubai labour court, saying they had not been paid. One worker said water had to be brought into their camp from a mosque. There was a dramatic increase in the number of cases filed in Dubai labour court in the first half of this year, to 2,658 compared with 940 in the first half of 2008. Lawyers said they had seen a massive rise in cases as companies made huge swathes of their workforces redundant.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae