Inside a migrant worker camp

In a recent post I described my visit to a migrant worker camp located outside the city of Abu Dhabi.

Just to clarify, there are many names used for a place like this, ‘labour camp’, ‘labourer camp’, ‘ migrant worker accommodation’, etc, etc.  The camp I visited is not really a ‘labourer’ camp (i.e. construction labourers) as the fellows who live here are actually office workers but for now I will use the terms interchangeably.  (Btw, thanks to Eric Adler who pointed out after my last post that the term ’labour camp‘ had been, until recently, reserved for referring to penal camps where labour is forced upon its inmates as a form of penalty.  So this seems to be a bit of a misnomer (or not?).  Anyway, leave it to the Abu Dhabi Government to label highway signs with the phrase.

In any case, I enjoyed my experience last time so much that I asked my host if I could visit him and his friends / brothers / roommates again.  Although I found it a very humbling experience it was also fun and insightful and visiting the camp is kind of like entering a microcosm of India itself (or at least a certain part of that country).  The building that I am visiting houses 320 workers (number verified since my last visit), many of whom are from from the state of Tamil Nadu in India, and about half of which follow the Muslim religion.

To provide some context, the capital of Tamil Nadu state is Chennai (formerly known by its English name Madras which you may have heard of) which is located in the south of India close to the states of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.  The per capita income of the residents of Tamil Nadu is approximately US$480 a year. The residents of this building are mainly employed as office assistants and they can make anywhere between 1200 and 2000 dirhams a month (between US$324 and US$540 a month!).  So a definite improvement.

But the cost of living is high in Abu Dhabi and it is clear that social issues are not being considered in the development of these places.  Meals are not provided for. Health insurance is not provided for. Desalinated water is provided (but no one in the UAE really drinks it because of the high sodium content / poor taste, so these fellows buy their own bottled water like the rest of us). In addition to their basic salary, only their living quarters and transportation to / from their workplace is provided. There are no perks, not even an allowance for a trip home to see their families once in a while.  What money do they have left over after providing for their expenses is sent home in the form of remittances to their families.  Not to mention  inflation in the prices of basic goods and currency fluctuations which have had a big impact on savings…

Tonight I will share an iftar meal with twelve of the residents in the confines of their 4.5m. x 3.5m. room.  I will describe this in a future update, the focus of this post is to describe a bit of what the living / sleeping conditions of the camp are like.

By way of background, Iftar is the name for the evening meal Muslims use to break the daily fast they observe during the month of Ramadan. From dawn until dusk, Muslims are not permitted (under Islamic custom) to eat or drink. Traditionally, the first thing that a Muslim will consume at the start of Iftar will be a date. As a contribution to the meal, I have decided to bring apple juice and date-filled chocolate-covered cookies. Can’t wait to bite into those. :) [Check back soon in this space for an update on my iftar experience]

In my last post I left off as my host was about to show me around his building and his room (his ‘accommodation’).  The decor of the building is very simple. The hallways are long and mostly unadorned, painted in an off-white colour. Here and there hangs a poster or a flyer, advertising goods for sale. There are a number of rooms, outside of which lie mats with shoes and sandals.  The few men who happen to be in the hall look at me with funny smiles, obviously wondering why I might be there.

We stop at a door on the right side, on which there is a large sign announcing ‘Ramadan Kareem!‘, which translates loosely as ‘Happy Ramadan!’. My host opens the door and invites me in, so I slip off my flip-flops and peer inside.  There are a few guys who look at me warily and feeling like an intruder I gingerly make my way in.  They smile and greet me and immediately invite me to sit down, while offering me tea and biscuits.

To say the room is small is an understatement. It’s about 4.5m x 3.5m in area. Metal-framed bunk beds ring the room, providing sleeping space for up to 12 people (some rooms have up to 16). Those who are lucky enough to have a bottom bunk have extra storage space underneath but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that they share it with their roommates.  On top of each of the bunks is a sheet of plywood, wrapped in duct tape on the ends to prevent splinters I assume.  There are no mattresses.  Each of the beds has a pillow and a blanket, and on most of them personal effects are piled high, competing for space with the person who sleeps there. Frankly, I find the atmosphere cozy, and it reminds me of the dorms I stayed in at summer camp as a child.

As I absorb the contents of the room, it dawns on me that probably all of the personal possessions of these men are actually located in the small area that is their personal sleeping / bed space (you can see photos by clicking the links below to Picasa).

Here is an ad posted by someone looking for a bed space in downtown Abu Dhabi (this would be for a space in a typical 2 or 3 bedroom apartment which is being shared by 10 or more people). 

There is a window in the room but it is covered with a plastic tarp out of which juts one of the air-conditioning units I mentioned previously.  I also see lots of power bars connecting to various electrical appliances in the room.  For starters, the a/c unit, a small refrigerator (in which the guys keep bottles of water, juices, milk and other things) and a kettle (for making tea/coffee).  On some of the beds there are computers or televisions, each of which is hooked up to Internet or satellite tv (pirated connections) for a small fee which they split among each other. It helps them stay connected to their families, and they use skype regularly, even as I sit there in the room.  There are wires everywhere.  There is no fire extinguisher.

During the evening I take a bathroom break, and one of the fellows shows me to their lavatories.  Bathrooms are nothing to boast about – a hole in the ground over which you squat and do your business.  The floor is filthy.  The men acknowledge that it is not very pleasant.  They say that someone cleans the bathrooms once a day – I decide not to ask if they need to pay for the cleaning service or if the building management takes care of that.

Have a look at some of my first photos of the camp and leave your comments (you need a userid) on PICASA:

Migrant Worker Camps in Abu DhabiMigrant Worker Camps in Abu Dhabi

Despite all of this, I am getting the feeling that there are camps out there where the workers are much worse off than the fellows who live in this one. Here’s an anecdote worth sharing: a camp for construction labourers is currently being developed in a nearby area.  The size of the lot for the development is 700 metres by 700 metres.  Low-rise buildings to accommodate over 75,000 workers are contemplated in the plans, which also call for an electrified fence to encircle the lot….   This comes from a reliable source.

Keep checking back on this space… I will continue to write more about my experiences visiting these camps. There is so much still for me to learn about this topic, so much to write, and I want to share as much of it as I can.