x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Yas Island raises camp standard

Officials say that better conditions are key to the well-being of workers and the productivity of industry. But some squalor persists.

Saqr Gobash, the UAE Minister of Labour, visits Yas Island Camps by Aldar.
Saqr Gobash, the UAE Minister of Labour, visits Yas Island Camps by Aldar.

Just outside Abu Dhabi Island, Binji Khanji, 38, briefly takes his eyes off the giant television screen in one of the on-site recreation centres at his labour camp to explain his luck. "I was unemployed at home," he says, trying to describe the undignified reality of long-term unemployment in Gujarat, India. "Here, I work six days a week. I am able to send home 10,000 Indian rupees (Dh774) a month to my family."

Like most of the nearly 41,000 other labourers working to make Aldar's Yas Island project come to life, Mr Khanji travelled to the UAE for a better life, which he hoped to achieve through work. He has been here for six months, before which he lived at a labour camp in Dubai. "Life is better here," he says. "Better than home." But about 20 minutes away in Mussafah, Ranjan, a 40-year-old air conditioning repairman from Kerala, India, offers an altogether different reality. He refuses to open the door fully to the tiny room he shares with seven other men in Musaffah, clearly embarrassed by its condition. So he leans halfway out into the hall, sweating profusely, waving his hand in front of his face in an attempt to chase away the smell coming from the cooking area beside him, apologetically.

The hallway floor lies at an angle and sinks with each step. Dirty shoes, clothes, safety goggles, dirty plates and cookware mingle on the floor, attracting flies. "I was given photos of the UAE before I came here five years ago, but this is not what was in those pictures," he says. "I know there is better accommodation in this country than here." The UAE has been criticised by human rights groups for Dickensian conditions of labourers like Ranjan, who says he was misled about working here. But the lack of space, volume of bodies and sometimes poorly built buildings will, officials hope, be soon rectified by better oversight and regulations.

Under the new housing standards passed by the federal cabinet, labour camps with such conditions will be denied permits, ultimately making way for improved living quality of the sort being pioneered by Aldar in Yas Island. "We don't call them labour camps any more, actually. Not here," says Scott Dowding, logistics co-ordinator for the Yas Island project. "We call [the accommodation] Operative Villages," Mr Dowding says. "We're trying to get away from the idea of labour camps."

The philosophy is firmly rooted in the belief that happier workers are better workers. Labourers on Yas Island live in cabins the size of a large mobile home, eight to a room. Everyone is allowed internet access, up to 30 minutes daily. Also available are gymnasiums, a cricket pitch, a library and recreation rooms showing films in a variety of languages. "The Ministry of Labour comes every two months to check on Aldar and the main contractors," Mr Dowding said.

During a tour of the Yas Island facilities in October 2008, the Minister of Labour, Saqr Ghobash, said the facility should be held up as a standard to which all labour camps in the country should aspire. "There are no more excuses for the private sector to not meet these standards," he said at the time. But it is not just the conditions themselves that make one camp better than another, the labourers say, they also reflect how they are viewed by their employers; good conditions allow them dignity and show respect, which ultimately lead to better productivity.

"My company provides me with good accommodation," says Mohammed Naveed, 22, of Pakistan, who is a steelworker at an Al Nasr project. "That makes me satisfied. I am satisfied, so I will work." jhume@thenational.ae