Workers in Gulf camp head home as 'victims' of economic downturn

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The hidden face of the Emirates' economic crunch is in places such as Industrial Zone 18 and the ramshackle compound for about 700 migrant workers within. For more than six months, they have lived on charity, fought off rats and slept amid piles of trash after a construction company abruptly closed and left them jobless.

Their limbo highlights the plight of tens of thousands of other imported laborers in once-booming Dubai and surrounding areas who have lost work because of the economic downturn. Many have been marooned in camps lacking basics such as food and sanitation as they struggle to find new jobs or a way home.

In the Al Sajaa camp in Sharjah — the emirate just north of Dubai — the journey back began this week. Hundreds finally started returning home to India, Pakistan and elsewhere with tickets purchased by United Arab Emirates authorities from the company's deposits.

The Al Sajaa struggle marks one of the most prolonged and desperate cries for help from abandoned workers. It also throws a harsh light on the conditions in some of the labor camps dotting the country — which have brought both outcry from rights groups and pledges for reforms and better oversight by UAE officials.

"People see the buildings and roads and malls, but they don't feel the sadness and struggles of the workers that built them," said Shoukath Ali Eroth, who heads an aid group focusing on labor camps that house construction crews and others in the UAE and around the Gulf.

As Ali Eroth walked through the camp, he was mobbed by workers waving their flight schedules to places such as Mumbai and Islamabad. They asked him how they would manage to get to their villages — sometimes requiring days of travel — without any money.

"I tell them the truth. I have no answer," he shrugged.

One worker, Mohammad Imran, said he hasn't been paid in five months after the company pulled the plug on its last projects. Most of his monthly salary of 1,000 dirhams ($274) was sent back to his wife and four children in Multan in south-central Pakistan.

"There is such a bitterness. We came here to make money and now we are going home with less than nothing," said Imran, who worked in an equipment supply depot for the now-idle Al Saqr Engineering and Contracting, which at one point had at least a dozen projects under way in Dubai.

"And look how we live," he said. "It's only a paradise for rats."

Power and water was cut months ago because of unpaid bills. Most workers moved their bunk beds outside. They now stand in rows surrounded by piles of rotting garbage and debris that's covered by clouds of flies — which the workers swat with ragged cardboard fans. Rats pick at the food scraps from meals donated by local relief groups.

Some rooms are decorated with bits of castoff color: shipping crates stickers and mobile phone ads. A message written in marker on one of the yellow stucco walls: God, be merciful.

The company was a relatively small fish in Dubai's feeding frenzy. It concentrated on modest-size office towers, which where seen as almost surefire money makers as companies raced to get a foothold in Dubai's white-hot market.

Workers said they paid the company up to 7,000 dirhams (more than $1,900) for a visa and travel to the UAE.

"Everyone was rushing here. We thought we'd come home with money and as heroes to our family," said Ponnuchammy, a 25-year-old steel fitter from southern Indian who goes by one name.

Then the economic crunch brought a sudden reckoning. As credit dried up, many projects were quickly shelved. Al Saqr was down to six construction sites — some still holes in the ground and others further along — said the company's former human resources manager, Shibu Varghese.

"It has all collapsed. The company is gone," he said.

Varghese said the company's chief officer fled the country after debts began to pile up. Calls by The Associated Press to the company's office in Dubai were not answered.

"I feel very bad for the workers," he added. "They are victims in all of this."

The slowdown also has rattled one of the underpinnings of the Gulf's growth: migrant laborers from south Asian and elsewhere willing to endure the labor camps in exchange for steady pay that's beyond reach at home.

Earlier this year, more than 1,000 workers at another Sharjah camp were without electricity or running water for months after paychecks stopped from the Atlantic Emirates Group, a Dubai-based company with divisions that included construction, security and cleaning services. The workers were later sent home or found new jobs.

Emirati authorities, meanwhile, keep a closer eye on the camps for any signs of protests spilling over to the streets. Public displays of dissident — regardless of the subject — are quickly quashed in the UAE as officials try to preserve an image of multicultural harmony.

But with the country's lopsided demographics — far more guest workers than natives — the worries over even minor demonstrations are magnified.

Last year, security forces moved in after hundreds of south Asian workers held a street rally to demand higher wages and overtime pay from their employer, Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises LLC, which built Dubai's landmark sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.

In 2008, police in Sharjah arrested hundreds of South Asian workers who smashed office windows and set fire to cars during a strike for higher wages.

At the Al Sajaa camp — tucked between stores and warehouses — most workers expressed a mix of anger and shock at becoming collateral damage in Dubai's fiscal meltdown.

Atmaram, a 24-year-old steel fitter from the Pakistani state of Punjab who uses one name, turned to the little Arabic he knew when asked if he would ever return.

"Dubai khalas," he said, meaning "Dubai is finished" for him.

Nearby, the owner of a grocery store waved a list of workers whom he allowed to buy food on credit. The bill was up to 9,000 dirhams (about $2,400). He now wondered how he would ever be paid.