In Gulf work camp, jobless begin glum journey home

Labourers, mostly Indians, struggle after company closes abruptly

 For more than six months, they have lived on charity, fought off rats and slept amid piles of trash after a construction company abruptly closed and left them jobless.

Their limbo highlights the plight of tens of thousands of other imported labourers in once-booming Dubai and surrounding areas who have lost work because of the economic downturn. Many have been marooned in camps lacking basics such as food and sanitation as they struggle to find new jobs or a way home.

In the Al Sajaa camp in Sharjah — the emirate just north of Dubai — the journey back began this week. Hundreds finally started returning home to India, Pakistan and elsewhere with tickets purchased by United Arab Emirates authorities from the company’s deposits.

The Al Sajaa struggle marks one of the most prolonged and desperate cries for help from abandoned workers. It also throws a harsh light on the conditions in some of the labour camps dotting the country — which have brought both outcry from rights groups and pledges for reforms and better oversight by UAE officials.

“People see the buildings and roads and malls, but they don’t feel the sadness and struggles of the workers that built them,” said Shoukath Ali Eroth, who heads an aid group focusing on labour camps that house construction crews and others in the UAE and around the Gulf.

As Ali Eroth walked through the camp, he was mobbed by workers waving their flight schedules to places such as Mumbai and Islamabad. They asked him how they would manage to get to their villages — sometimes requiring days of travel — without any money.

“I tell them the truth. I have no answer,” he shrugged.

One worker, Mohammad Imran, said he hasn’t been paid in five months after the company pulled the plug on its projects.

Amid garbage and debris

Power and water was cut months ago because of unpaid bills. Most workers moved their bunk beds outside. They now stand in rows surrounded by piles of rotting garbage and debris that’s covered by clouds of flies — which the workers swat with ragged cardboard fans.

Some rooms are decorated with bits of castoff colour: shipping crates stickers and mobile phone ads. A message written in marker on one of the yellow stucco walls: God, be merciful.

The company was a relatively small fish in Dubai’s feeding frenzy. It concentrated on modest-size office towers, which where seen as almost surefire money makers as companies raced to get a foothold in Dubai’s white-hot market.

Workers said they paid the company up to 7,000 dirhams (more than $1,900) for a visa and travel to the UAE.

“Everyone was rushing here. We thought we’d come home with money and as heroes to our family,” said Ponnuchamy, a steel fitter from India.

Then the economic crunch brought a sudden reckoning. As credit dried up, many projects were quickly shelved. Al Saqr was down to six construction sites, said the company’s former human resources manager, Shibu Varghese. “It has all collapsed. The company is gone,” he said.

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