Watching workers glued to their phones talking to family back home or immersed in music channels and radio stations gave an Indian techie an idea to use the same instrument to send simple literacy and educational material to labourers.
Since the Smart Labour mobile phone application won an Expo Live grant earlier this year, more than 13,000 blue collar workers have downloaded the app after word spread in Dubai camps and a taxi company signed on.
Abu Muadh, its creator, also plans to link the app to rewards such as food and phone credit so UAE companies and residents can directly encourage learning initiatives by labourers.
“My mission is to use the phone to make life easier for them. There are 2.2 million blue collar workers in the UAE and most live far away from the digital world. They are connected only for entertainment and to talk to their families,” said Mr Muadh.
“I want workers to be able to use technology in a smart city. The root cause of all problems is lack of education. Language skills are critical to communicate with supervisors. We are first focussing on linguistic and life skills and once we have them engaged, we look at safety and health.”
Workers watch basic English and Arabic language videos with plans to add content in commonly spoken Indian languages such as Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali so they have an option to learn in their own language.
Apart from short sentences teaching them to introduce themselves and explain the job they do, the videos provide practical information on names, colours, shapes of vegetables, fruit and food useful to workers in the hospitality sector.
Mr Muadh has bigger ambitions to motivate workers to speak up within their company.
“Engagement is important. They are seen as workers. People look at them as doers not thinkers. They don’t contribute with ideas. This is what I want to change. Whether they are plumbers, carpenters, electricians, drivers or construction workers, they can speak in their own language and provide suggestions. Companies could benefit by listening in to what their workers are saying,” he said.
The app is also being used by drivers to learn safety information eliminating the need to attend training sessions in office.
Mr Muadh is working to sweeten the deal so companies can reward workers. The plan is for UAE residents to use the app as an incentive so workers who complete literacy objectives can win vouchers for food, shopping and phone credit to call home.
As part of a pilot with a few restaurants, a resident can buy a meal and the labourer will be receiving a code number on their phone to they can pick up the food from the restaurant.
“Apart from the learning aspect, the community is keen to do something for workers. We are soon going to have options where you can log in to buy food or data for a labourer. The worker shows his phone instead of putting out his hand or standing in line for donations or food,” Mr Muadh said.
Administration assistant Abdul Qader works with Mr Muadh to teach others to install the app.
“I understand English but if you asked me a question earlier, I could not answer. I could not speak in English. Now I see videos on how to speak, I also show it to my friends who want to learn,” said Mr Qader, who works in a security company.
“To be better in your job you need full English to go up in life,” he said.
For Mr Muadh, the guidance he received from the Expo Live has been more essential than the $100,000 grant.
“The expo validated our concept, showed that it has potential. Experts have looked at our plans, I have much more confidence now,” said Mr Muadh, who runs a software company but is now focussed on social targets to take the app to workers in other emirates.
“The government is talking about a smart city and happiness. A smart city needs smart labour that is our key message. These guys are right under our nose and if you put in the effort the impact will be big. We want workers to benefit from being in a smart city,” he said.
How smartlabour.ae works:
Workers usually use android phones, some use old iPhones.
Big icons with voice enabled content explains the system.
Most have low-end smart phones to talk to their family.
There are no cyber cafés in labour accommodations, in some camps employers provide free Wi-Fi.
For 2.2 million blue collar workers in the UAE, lack of education and communication skills restrict growth.
Workers learn basic English for use at work.
They log on to safety and life skills information in their own language.
Expo Live has helped it grow from about 1,000 to more than 13,000 users.
They can earn vouchers for food, shopping and phone credit when they achieve literacy goals.