The daily battle to keep cool

Essential maintenance work by Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has left labourers in Jebel Ali having to endure soaring temperatures with no air to cool them and no water. Conrad Egbert visits one such camp to discover how the workers have coped during four weeks of hell.

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  June 17, 2006

Driving up a dusty off-road track leading to the Al Hamed labour camp, hidden away in an obscure corner of Jebel Ali, the immediate image that springs to mind is of the Wild West. A 1.8m-high barbwire fence runs around the vast camp, which is mostly deserted. One worker slowly makes his way across an open space to one of the many wooden cabins, weighed down with what looks like paint buckets in either hand. These containers in fact contain a commodity that, of late, has become extremely precious to him — water. With temperatures reaching 45 degrees C, workers have been subjected to power and water cuts for the past few weeks, leaving them unable to sleep, eat or even take respite from the sun inside their rooms, which are made out of cardboard and wood. Last week hundreds of workers rioted in their labour camps following weeks of water and electricity cuts. They had complained that there was insufficient drinking water in the camp and the generators were switched off for several hours at night, forcing them to sleep without air conditioning. “This way please,” says Ahmed, an Arabtec worker who we picked up on the way and whose brother works as a steel fixer at Al Hamed Development & Construction Company. He takes us round the back of the labour camp, which doubles up as a junk yard, with heaps of trashed air conditioners, steel parts and a mosquito infested garbage dump within a stone’s throw of the living quarters. We walk past a series of water troughs with workers bathing and filling water in empty paint containers in order to stack up so that they don’t run out when the water supply fails. “These people are storing water so that they can bathe the day after tomorrow,” explains Ahmed. “Water has been coming in fits and starts for the past few weeks, making it impossible to live in the heat. “Even if there was no electricity these people could cool down with frequent showers, but with neither I can’t understand how they survive. I’ve been housing my brother in my camp for the past week because he says he can’t cope with this.” We are escorted into one of the cabins to meet Faisal, another worker who works as a steel fixer for Al Hamed. “We don’t even have drinking water so how are we supposed to survive,” says Faisal. “Often I end up trekking to the shop and am forced to buy a bottle of Coke or Pepsi as the water has already been bought by other workers. “The company doesn’t seem to care about us at all. I’ve taken an US $4100 [AED15,000] loan to come here and have paid only a fraction back despite being with the company for 10 years now. I can’t even leave as I have to first pay off the loan or the house that my family lives in will be confiscated.” Speaking to Construction Week, an Al Hamed spokesperson admits: “There is a slight water problem that will be sorted out soon. There is water but the pressure is not so good, which sometimes results in no water at all. “We are also making arrangements to bring in water tankers to increase the water supply when the pressure is not good. However, the electricity is fine and the workers are not on strike,” he adds. Last week Abdullah Al Harjery, corporate communications manager, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, magnanimously apologised to workers in labour camps such as the one housing Al Hamed workers, who had suffered weeks of air conditioning and water pump breakdowns due to the essential maintenance work carried out. He promised the thousands of workers that power would be back on and their suffering would be over. For Faisal and his long-suffering colleague the return to normality as temperatures continue to rise cannot come soon enough. *The names of the workers have been changed in order to protect their identities.

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