Expat workers’ sacrifice for life outside labour camps

Thousands of workers who share a room with 10 people in the Abu Dhabi city appeared satisfied with the free city life but disliked the gated camps with limited access to buzzing city bazars.

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ABU DHABI // Some men prefer apartments in the city to workers’ accommodation, but the price they pay for their independence can be high – and not just financially

While the shared accommodation at Saadiyat Workers’ Village and Icad in Mussaffah meets international standards of at least three square metres of living space per person, overcrowded rooms in Abu Dhabi do not.

Many city-centre apartments where workers live have three-tiered bunk beds with up to 10 men in each bedroom, and 15 in the hall. The accommodation is not only cramped, it is illegal.

Municipality regulations mandate no more than six unrelated adults in one villa, no more than three people in one apartment bedroom and no more than two in a studio.

So, as well as paying rent of up to Dh350 a month, tenants often have to bribe building doormen to keep quiet about how many people are living in one apartment.

Saiful Islam, from Bangladesh, who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1999 and shares a three-bedroom apartment with about 45 other men, said: “I am happy here and pay Dh350 a month for a bed space.

“We have window AC and clean our own rooms, and we can have quality food of our choice – not like in the camps, where the food quality is bad.

“We can cook, but in the camps that’s not allowed. Here, we are free to dine out wherever and whenever we want, but in the camps workers have to eat whatever is served there.

“I stayed in an Abu Dhabi camp for some time and I know the conditions.”

Mr Islam does several jobs as a freelance driver, mason and electrician, and earns up to Dh1,500 a month.

Although he prefers to live in the inner city, he complains that in addition to rising rents, some doormen are taking as much as Dh5,000 in one-time bribes when apartments are let.

“And each month, the building security guard takes Dh100 from each room to turn a blind eye to bachelors’ living, which is not allowed.”

Mr Islam said there should be subsidised accommodation for workers within the city limits because their salaries were too low to afford high rents.

Zainul Abdeen, from Bangladesh, who works for an Emirati family in Abu Dhabi, shares a room with 10 people in Madinat Zayed off Muroor Road and pays Dh200 a month.

“I have a low salary so I am happy here,” he said. “The cost of living is very high and my savings have plummeted. That’s why I choose to live here, to save money.”

Abdul Razzak, a tailor who has lived in Abu Dhabi for 23 years, shares a three-bedroom apartment with another 25 men inside a villa in Khalidiya. There are six men in each bedroom and eight in the hall.

His air-conditioned room accommodates three Bangladeshis and three Indians. “We pay Dh3,000 for the room, so I have to pay Dh500 a month in rent,” he said.


More coverage on this topic:

Abu Dhabi invests in worker comfort

Despite difficult conditions, labourers feel better of in UAE

South Asian expats save in UAE and spend at home

More from 22 March:

Special report: A look inside UAE labour accommodation living conditions

Life on Saadiyat: catering staff try to please different palates

Passport retention by UAE companies less common


About this package:

The UAE has signed up to nine International Labour Organisation conventions to protect workers’ rights, and in 2006 was the first country in the region to enact a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law. These conventions spurred the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) to improve the quality of life for 7,000 employees living in workers villages on Saadiyat island. While most workers say they are satisfied with life in Saadiyat Accommodation Village, many have voiced concern about the poor taste of the food. Despite criticism, the purchasing power of the dirham in Southest Asian countries remains a major factor in attracting expatriates to the UAE. Similarly, concerns over passport retention have decreased as the practice has become less common in the UAE.