In praise of the poor labourer

As Muslims, we should not forget our Prophet's words: 'Give the worker his dues, his rights, before his sweat dries.'

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After several years of being made fun of by our friends and relatives, both my family and my in-laws finally decided that enough was enough and that it was time to pay an overdue visit to a local builder. The reason for the amusement was that, while all of us had acquired our government-given lands and loans to build homes at the same time, my family had procrastinated.

As a result, while our friends and family had done their homework and were already living in their brand new furnished homes in places like Al Shamkha, Al Wathba, Madinat Mohammed bin Zayed and Khalifa City B, the same areas where our own land was, we had yet to begin. Seeing and experiencing the process of building a house from scratch is an interesting and enlightening experience. You end up discovering a great deal about ceramics, metal, cement and, of course, the lives of the workers who are guided by the contractor's engineer and supervisor, who direct them and make sure everything is going according to the blueprint.

What you also discover, though, is that most of these workers live in very poor conditions. In fact, some even make their homes in the very place where they work. By day they toil, putting up beams, pouring cement, installing this and that, and all the while their feet are encased in nothing more than sandals, their elbows and knees are unprotected, and their heads are either wrapped in feeble turbans or left bare, vulnerable should anything fall on them. At night they sleep where they work.

On my first trip to our little building site, I watched an East Asian worker who was standing on what was not exactly the firmest scaffolding in dusty footwear and with nothing to protect his head. The very least the contractors should provide are helmets. It may be that in their own countries they do not have this option and that safety regulations are unknown. But this does not excuse us from insisting on something that is basic common sense.

Then there is the question of payment. To think that these men come from so far away and then sometimes do not even get their meagre salaries on time is truly a disgrace. As Muslims, we should not forget our Prophet's words: "Give the worker his dues, his rights, before his sweat dries." The very least that can be done for them is to pay what they deserve on time. Another equally important measure to ensure that their basic human rights are met is to provide decent housing.

I have mentioned that the men working on our houses often live on the premises and I was not joking: in a corner of our site they have set up shacks, with tin roofs and flimsy walls. Inside, from what I have glimpsed, are little more than wooden boards and small gas stoves. Sometimes I can smell dinner being prepared by one of them. After a while, my father took pity on the workers and asked my mother to prepare a giant feast-like lunch for them of biryani rice and chunks of mutton.

Perhaps a month after this gesture, one of the workers approached my father and shyly asked if such a feast could be prepared again, and so my father asked my mother to prepare it once more. I have witnessed this event several times now. First my mother flings open the back door near our villa's kitchen in anticipation of the tremendous cooking odours that are about to be released. Next, a gigantic gas stove is placed on the floor, just like the ones I'm sure local biryani restaurants use for their own cooking. The gas is switched on and a huge metal pot is placed on top of it. Jugs of water are then poured in and it takes quite a while before it is boiling. Oil and great chunks of chopped onion are added, as well as cinnamon bark and cardamom. As soon as the onion begins to char, soaked rice is added.

The meat is already in the pressure cooker to reduce the overall cooking time. Copious amounts of garam masala and spices are then added to both the rice and the meat. It is truly a sight (and a smell) to behold. Once everything is ready, it is time to load it into the car and take it to the men. My father complains that his back hurts too much for him to carry the monstrous pot to the back of his station wagon and my mother rolls her eyes, even though we know that really he is no stranger to hard work.

As a doctor, he has been on his feet dutifully rushing from patient to patient at all hours of the day and night for the better part of 30 years. Apparently general surgeons in Al Mafraq Hospital are always understaffed and overworked, and there has always been a soft spot in his heart for the woes of the common labourer. And so there should be, after treating so many of them during a lifetime in medicine. Over the years he has told us of so many accidents to workers on building sites that could have been avoided if they were professionally managed and made safe.

One wonders what happens to the families back home when these men are killed in accidents, or temporarily unable to work through injury or sometimes permanently disabled. I had always thought an Indian city such as Delhi would be a cheap place to live, and that there would be plenty to choose from when it came to finding housing. A little research, though, reveals that a good, clean place is not always cheap. Which brings us to the issue of workers' salaries. These can be as low as Dh300 a month.

How can such a salary be divided? What should the priority be? His food? His clothes? His shelter? His family back home? The mind boggles. "Poor things," my father says having watched the labourers eat. As he settles back at our house, he is feeling more than a bit pleased about what he has done. "They all sit down together and eat - I'm sure mutton is like a luxury to them." I ask my mother more than once why she tires herself out making this feast when, for the same price or less, she could have sent my father to buy a mutton biryani from any nearby Indian restaurant.

"I want the ajer," she simply says, which is equivalent, I suppose, to "karma". The last time my husband and I passed the site, the workers were standing in a familiar formation in the middle of the street, playing what was undoubtedly cricket. The ball is thrown by a bearded man with a strong arm and then deftly hit by a bat, which is really no more than a forgotten plank of wood. The ball flies off and those waiting are eager to catch it.

My husband makes his feelings clear on this sport, declaring it a boring game and voicing his amazement that it is as popular as it is: "The only people who really see any action are the pitcher and the hitter. All the others just move when the ball is hit." He is a passionate football player and so there is not much to say on the subject of cricket. We enter the abandoned site, looking over our own new apartment that now stands in the enclosed premises of my in-laws' home. I'm sure it is not going to offer the best privacy in the world, but it has its own living room, bathrooms and most importantly kitchen.

As I look out on to the tin roofs of the labourers' shacks, I realise how grateful I am for their help and wish that more could be done to protect their rights and help to ensure that the work that they do is properly appreciated. Iman Ateq al Musabi is an Emirati national who is Zayed University's last known English literature graduate. Raised in Scotland, she graduated in Abu Dhabi and is currently writing The Great Emirati Novel. She is mother to a son who is convinced he was born to fight monsters