First impressions of a labour camp

Yesterday I visited a migrant worker “camp” for the first time. Yes – the type of camp that has made the United Arab Emirates (and other Gulf countries) so infamous in recent years for the alleged rights violations of the men who live there.  I won’t comment on these as I am not in a position to do so – not being an expert on human orlabour rights.  In this post I will try to describe my initial thoughts just prior to entering the camp.  In posts to come over the coming days I will try to follow up to describe their living conditions, the services they have access to and the general atmosphere among the residents.

I leave my home in the early evening hours – the camp I am going to visit is located 30 minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi, in the dusty industrial city of Musaffah. After driving for 30 minutes along the the six-lane (in each direction) Abu Dhabi – Dubai highway, my taxi turns off onto the two lane (in each direction) Musaffah road. Within a few minutes we begin to pass row after row of dilapidated low-rise rectangular buildings with triangular roofs and strange square blocks protruding from the sides.  At first, from the blur of a passing car, they look like industrial warehouses. But as the taxi slows down for an approaching roundabout I look closer and I can see school buses parked outside and recognize the protruding blocks as air-conditioning units. Now that we have slowed to a brief stop, I can see groups of men sitting around smoking cigarettes or strolling around shirtless with lungis wrapped around their waists.  Heading around the roundabout, we drive onto a dirt road and pull up next to one of these buildings.  In the common area where the men are lounging, there are satellite dishes mounted in the ground and clotheslines are strung up, flapping in the hot summer wind.  The taxi driver announces that we have arrived.  Before I’ve even realized it, I am among the labourer camps where thousands of men are housed for years whilst they support the multi-billion dollar developments that are giving the UAE its global claim to fame.

Welcome to Abu Dhabi, the richest city in the world.  This is the closest thing it has to a slum.

The building I am visiting houses five hundred Indian men mostly from the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. As I get out of the shiny silver taxi, the men stare at me; my impression is they are wondering what a gora (Hindi for white man) is doing this part of town. I am not afraid though. I feel that it is not an indignant look, just a curious one. Later on I find out that I am the first gora ever to have visited this particular camp or accommodation complex. Indians are among the friendliest people I have ever met, which is part of why I wanted to visit this place so badly. It is a chance to be among the people who are building this place, people who may also be among the loneliest in the country.

As diverse as the UAE is, sadly, it is also an isolated place, where people seem to fall into social groups often based on their economic position and / or ethnicity. The transient nature of the community (over 80% of the population is expatriate) makes it difficult to connect with people living here.  Much of the expatriate population hails from labour-exporting countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Arab World as well, for instance Syria, Egypt or Jordan. I like to compare it to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel except that in the UAE they are somehow able to get things built despite the cultural and linguistic differences.

My host is one of the residents of this building and he excitedly greets me with a smile and a warm handshake. “Hello sir, how are you sir?” he begins, and then goes on to admonish me for taking an ‘expensive’ silver taxi instead of a cheaper ‘gold and white’.  Doing so means I may have paid up to 3-4 US$ more for my journey (approximately 25% higher than it would have been).

And so began my four-hour visit to this camp on a warm (~40 degrees Celsius) Saturday evening, during which I learned a bit about their lifestyle, their spending habits, their gripes, their culture, their needs, etc.  That’s it for tonight – I’ll come back with more to write about in the coming days.  Keep an eye on this space.

For the moment I don’t have any photos to share of the area outside of the buildings – I was a bit cautious in this respect as I didn’t want to offend my hosts.

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