The guards who keep 60,000 immigrant workers safe

Supervising camps full of labourers in the UAE can be a challenging and sometimes humorous job, but friendship has to be sacrificed for duty.

October 28, 2009 / Abu Dhabi /  Students at The National Security Institute under go fire fighting training in Khalifa City A October 28, 2009.   (Sammy Dallal / The National)

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ABU DHABI // At first, the process seems mundane. At the gates of a labour camp on the outskirts of the city, the workers got through identity checks. If they are carrying bags, the security guards do a quick search. Even vehicles are not exempt; guards check the boot, too.

It is an exercise in caution. Every day, workers and the guards go through the same routine. Both sides know it well but the workers sometimes do not understand the need for daily scrutiny; the guards say it is necessary to keep the peace. "We are firm with them but we do not engage, especially when they get upset," said Shiv Das, a guard from India, who works for Adsecc, a security firm that helps run several camps in and around the capital and provides personnel who supervise more than 60,000 workers.

"We get yelled at for checking cars and ID, but it is our duty and we must do it." The guards are discouraged from becoming friends with the workers so they are not taken advantage of, or talked into compromising security. From breaking up fights to aiding workers who fall ill, the guards deal with a wide range of issues. "We speak politely but we are not friendly," said Zeld Ongue, a guard from the Philippines. "We have sacrificed friendship for duty."

Sometimes, the guards rely on little else but a visual inspection to find banned materials. Other times, a sound check is revealing. They call it "the clink-clink of pants", the sound made when workers try to smuggle in bottles of alcohol. One day the guards received a tip about a worker who had illegally procured alcohol and was selling it from his room. When they approached the room the worker ran away. Instead of chasing him, they waited patiently for him to return. When he returned and was confronted with the cache he confessed and the police were eventually called.

"We are like their big brothers. We tell them when they are wrong," Mr Das said. Ultimately the security guards and their supervisors decide which activities they consider criminal and which not. For example, fire alarms in the labourers' rooms can go off as many as 20 times a day. Someone is likely smoking shisha or a cigarette; or cooking; or burning incense or a candle. Since these are minor infractions, the guards will make a note in their log books but will not report the incident to authorities. Unless it leads to a fire, of course.

On other occasions, the guards have to deal with more serious issues that can stem from the slightest misunderstanding. Nikolai Ehlers, a regional security operations manager with Adsecc, recalls an incident where a Pakistani worker tripped over the foot of an Indian worker and fell at a crowded food counter in the dining area of a labour camp. When the Pakistani stood up he was dazed and bleeding from the mouth, having lost a tooth. He staggered over to his group of friends who became instantly agitated.

Before he could explain the situation, an accident threatened to escalate into violence. At a labour camp, the next step could be a riot. "A riot can start any time. And over the slightest misunderstanding, it spirals," Mr Ehlers said. Delayed salary payments, a lack of water or even a broken generator can start trouble. While they are there primarily to look after the workers, some of guards said their main concern was to keep "outsiders out".

"They don't monitor us as much as they monitor those outsiders who are coming and going from our camps," said Balbir Singh, a worker from the Indian state of Punjab. The security guards are the first to be called when there is a problem in the camp. If there is a theft, then it is up to the guards to call the police. If there is a fight, they will try to neutralise it. If the situation accelerates, it is up to them to call the security company and the police.

The workers call the guards Nathoor, a colloquial term in Arabic that means watchman or a person of authority. "It is not up to the guards whether we like them or not. It is up to the worker," said Mushahid Khan, a Pakistani worker who lives in Musaffah. "If they are good or bad, if they get in trouble for what they are doing and talking back, then they will tell you that they don't like the security guard. But if you don't give them reason to bother you, then they won't. They have a lot to worry about otherwise."

The vast regional differences between workers of the same nationality also leads to quirky complaints. "Sometimes you get the funniest of complaints," Mr Ehlers said. "One group says they don't like cauliflower in their food and want it replaced with potatoes or want chapatis over Arabic bread. "For us, we say that is fine because when we relay it to the companies, for example, if they are saving on food wastage, there are savings in the long run and everyone is happy."

Mr Ehlers recalled an incident when two cleaners started a fight over who got to use a new broom. One punched the other in the nose, and soon he was bleeding. "Are we going to expel him? They have gone through such an ordeal to get here. You don't want to hand them over to the police and ruin their life over a broom."