Building the dream of Dubai: How many workers are forced to live

Our ‘Build Respect’ campaign is aimed at improving the often shabby treatment of migrant construction workers. This week, a Construction Week reporter visits the Sonapur labour camp on the outskirts of Dubai, where thousands of labourers are packed into dormitories and forced to live in squalid surroundings.

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  June 18, 2005

Sonapur’s literal meaning is the ‘Golden Place’, but for the army of migrant construction workers who live here, there is little that is ‘golden’ about it. Situated on the outskirts of Dubai, about 7 km from Al- Qusais, it is a barren stretch of land dotted with hundreds of dormitory-style dwellings that are home to tens of thousands of workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines. You won’t find any pictures of this place in the glossy sales brochures that advertise the scores of residential towers being developed up and down the Dubai coast. But it is here that most of the people who are building those towers return to every day when they finish their shifts. And it is here in this city of dormitories that you can find endless stories of mistreatment, exploitation and suffering — such as the one told by Ravi, an engineer by profession, but who works as a bus driver for his contractor employer. Ravi, 24, resigned from his company in February, but is still living in Dubai in a state of limbo. He is owed three month’s wages and says he won’t leave until he gets paid. But he cannot find another job because under UAE law, employees are forbidden to work for any company other than their sponsor. Ravi came to the UAE with hopes of a better lifestyle after being promised a salary of AED1000 per month by a recruitment agency in India. He took out a loan to pay the company its fees for finding him work and processing his visa, which came to AED7000. He hoped to pay back the loan gradually with his earnings. But when he arrived, he was told that he would be paid only AED450 and that if he didn’t agree, he would be put on the next flight back home. Ravi does not want to be identified and fears reprisals from his old employer. In the UAE, a company can ban an ex-employee from working for up to one year. Like many of the residents of Sonapur, Ravi sleeps in a cramped and filthy cabin, which is home to 12 people sleeping in bunks of three. There is no air conditioning. “I’ve been to the labour camps in Sonapur and I’m shocked at the condition in which some of the workers are being made to live in,” says YK Sinha, the Consul General of India in Dubai. “Even when the chief minister of Kerala visited the camps, he had tears in his eyes. It’s abominable,” he says. Ravi’s 25 year-old friend, Trinad, says that many of the labour agents who employ people who live here are ‘glorified slave drivers’. He leaves for work every morning at 6am and returns at 7pm. When Trinad arrives back at Sonapur in the evening, he heads for his camp’s public kitchen. It has around a dozen stoves, which reek with the smell of rotting food. While he cooks his dinner of scrambled eggs and tomatoes, he explains that he tries to avoid eating the canteen food, which will cost him up to AED200 out of his AED500 salary per month. Next to the kitchen is a bathroom that has one long trough-like sink made of cement, in which everything from morning washes to washing utensils and laundry is done. “This is not how we were told we’d be living”, said another labourer who chooses to cook outside his room window as he finds the kitchen intolerable. He says: “Back home we may have had less money, but we had some self respect and a certain standard of living. Here, we are made to live like savages.” Just like Ravi, Trinad said he took a loan of AED10 000 in his hometown in Kerala, as his recruitment agency demanded AED7000 to cover his visa and service charges. They told him AED3000 would be refunded but still no payment has been made. He has no idea how to pay back that loan and fears he will get further into debt. He has other friends back in India who have taken loans and paid agencies to find work for them. Some have been waiting for over two years and have given up hope. He says scams like this are common. For Ravi and Trinad the dream of earning enough money in the UAE to build a better life back in India, has turned sour. Like many of their co-workers living in Sonapur, that dream has been replaced with the more pressing need to make ends meet for another week in the Golden Place.

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