Building firm abandons 1,000 in camp without water or power

Workers at Atlantic Emirates Group have had to fend for themselves for six months in a Sharjah labour camp after the firm's managing director fled the country.

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, May 3: Laborers working for the Atlantic Emirates Group company at their labour camp in Sharjah Industrial area in Sharjah. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News. Story by Praveen Menon
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More than 1,000 labourers have been fending for themselves in their Sharjah labour camps without electricity or running water, abandoned by an employer who they say stopped paying them six months ago.

The employees of Atlantic Emirates Group, a Dubai-based umbrella company, live in three labour camps and have not worked in the two months since the managing director of the company left the country for India. They claim they were not paid for at least four months before their employer decamped. "It was not unusual for us to be paid after two months of work," said Sunil Challil, an electrician who has worked with the group for five years. "So we waited but after we stopped working completely, we got worried."

According to the company's website, the enterprise had several businesses in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, including real estate management, construction, engineering, securities and cleaning services. The company also had businesses in India, including travel services, plantations and a stone-crushing unit in Kerala. Of the company's 1,400 workers, about 800 are Indians; the rest are from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Officials from the Ministry of Labour have visited the camps several times since March, when the workers lodged a complaint, to determine the men's travel plans.

On April 18, the ministry sent home 115 Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Another 30 workers from India were sent home yesterday. The Indian Consulate said the Ministry of Labour was arranging to get the labourers as much of their back pay as possible. Sanjay Verma, the Indian consul general in Dubai, has been in touch with the company to ensure the workers are paid and returned home. "The impression we got is that things are not well with the company," Mr Verma said. "The first responsibility to the workers is of the company. It's only when they completely fail that we step in. We are so far convinced that the company can keep up its commitments."

The camps, which are in the Sharjah industrial area, have been without electricity and water for a month because the company has not paid its utility bills. "The heat is unbearable and we have no respite from it," said Shibu Razzaq, an Indian construction worker at the camp. "We just want to get our money and leave as soon as possible." Like Mr Razzaq and Mr Challil, other workers have also had to buy food on credit from nearby shops and restaurants. Mr Challil said he owed more than Dh1,000, a debt accumulated over the past six months.

"We already owe a lot of money to shopkeepers but they feel sorry for us and give us rice and other things for a basic meal," Mr Razzaq said. The workers said they felt abandoned in spite of approaching the consulate and submitting a written request for help on April 21. "Today is the first day that anyone has asked about us," said Mr Challil, after word spread among the Indian community. Officials at the Indian Consulate in Dubai said they were not aware of a request made by the workers. They said that the consulate was co-ordinating with the Ministry of Labour to ensure the return of the workers by May 10.

K Kumar, the press officer for the Indian Community Welfare Committee, a branch of the Indian Consulate that oversees the welfare of distressed workers, said the priority was to ensure the men were given "three meals a day until they leave the country". The passports of the workers remain with the company, but Mr Kumar said that can be overridden by the labour department. The National was unable to reach any of the company's offices for comment. Most of the phone numbers for the Indian-based branches had been redistributed to other businesses, such as a hotel chain and an automobile store.

In the UAE, phone calls were unanswered in the Dubai and Sharjah offices. The Abu Dhabi phone number now belongs to a marine engineering company.