This article originally appeared in one of our newsletters. The concept of an office boy in most cultures would seem a somewhat bizarre existence – a boy paid minimal wage to prepare your tea, do the photocopying, deliver documents, and attend to your every need. At a time, where the majority of the UAE workforce is talking about cost of living increases, we speak to an office boy and examine the real poverty line.
Babu, our office boy (or Furraash, as it is termed in Arabic), seemed quite willing to divulge all sorts of information. Let’s give you the numbers first. Babu, as an office boy, earns 800 Dirhams a month. (That’s about USD220 or GBP120) In addition to this, he receives ‘bedspace’, food, transportation to work, and a ticket home every two years. Babu believes this is a good deal. He had the option of taking a salary of 1200, without the food and board, but with housing prices as they are these days, there would be an almighty struggle to keep costs down.
And what are Babu’s expenses? From the 800 Dirhams, he spends only about 100 each month. This is used to buy credit for his mobile (30), to chip in for the satellite costs for his room (20), the odd occasion where he decides to live large and share a taxi back to camp (5) and finally to treat himself to a ‘quality’ 2 Dirham breakfastevery few days. Where does the 700 go? He sends it home. You see, for Babu, to come here is somewhat of a luxury as far as earning potential goes. However, to get here Babu has had to borrow the equivalent of 8500 Dirhams from friends and family to pay for a company to get him the job and get him out here. Does that make sense in the real world – does it sound legal? I don’t think so – but sacrificing 1 year or so for further future potential makes sense to Babu when he sees that his options are limited.
For Babu, it is do or die. His current earning potential in India is low and would give him barely enough to live the life he aspires to. Amazingly, Babu has an undergraduate degree in chemistry. And his big plan is to go back to university and do a masters degree, before taking up a research technician job, which will earn him enough to lead the lifestyle that he wants back home. In order to cover the costs of his second degree and living expenditure, Babu needs to do another year and a half (or a total of 3 years) and he will have 10,000 Dirhams saved up.
You may feel sorry for him, but Babu deems himself lucky. In the labour camps where he stays, his life is a step up from some of the other workers. Babu works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 800 Dirhams, allowing earning potential from time in a second job. For the others, life is slightly different: gardeners work 12 hours a day through the scorching heat and earn 850 Dirhams; and cleaners work 7 days a week, 8 hours a day for a paltry 300 Dirhams. Almost blase, he threw in the fact that they could earn overtime for doing more hours. What could the upside be? - 450dhs for 12 hours per day or 590dhs for 16hours a day. If you assume a 30 day month, their hourly rate is 1.25 which incredibly drops to 1.16 if you go into the post 12 hour category. And remember, we are still talking Dirhams here. How would you feel if you earned 30 cents an hour?
Babu was eager for us to see his pad, so we ventured to Mussafah to see the splendour of the labour camps. There are thousands of labourers that support the UAE economy and are often not spoken of or ignored – and so while visiting a place of potential squalor was not particularly appealing, there was an interest in visiting a place that no one really sees.
Mussafah is an industrial area about an hour from Dubai and thirty minutes from Abu Dhabi, known primarily for cheap housing and the labour camps. On approaching the area, and seeing the signs for ‘labour camps’, it felt as if we were entering aprison of some sort. Ironically, some of these labourers are imprisoned in a life because their existence here supports a life for their family which they could never provide from their home town.
The men come predominantly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and there are probably three categories of why such people opt for this life: stepping stone; sacrifice; and desperation. Although Babu falls into the first category, many fall into the latter two. In the world of no minimum wage, some of the men are here simply to exist. We voiced our concerns about this to Babu, who said that if they were back in India, most labourers would struggle for food everyday, probably begging on the street - at least here, they are guaranteed food and a bed.
I had perceived the area to be made up of a number of buildings similar to university dormitories. However, all the buildings were of one level, somewhat similar to an industrial wasteland. In the desert, you’re not really paying a premium on space but on entrance to Babu’s room, we saw that he shared a 150 square foot room with 7 others. Other rooms held 10 poor souls in the same space. Their wardrobe which was about the size of three shoe boxes was the only space they had to store all their worldly possessions, including their clothes.
With no room, many congregate on the street when not working. With perhaps thirty to forty thousand residing in the near vicinity, this could be classed as a small city in itself. Some of the workers spent their spare time earning some extra cash. Those with the time take on extra jobs, packing and stacking, clothes tailoring or other cleaning positions. One individual had started a media duplication service, copying and selling the latest Bollywood and Hollywood tunes and flicks to the labourers on site. Others traded in alcohol or even acted as loan sharks. Now, all these are all illegal in various degrees of gravity, but this underworld existed to the point that these guys were protected by the Mafiosi within the camp. Backhanders and corruption happens at all levels, you know.
Babu’s camp consisted of roughly 400 men, although some others had more than a 1000. One kitchen serves about 14,000 workers each meal. A brief look at the preparation of the rice would have failed the most basic health and safety examination, and we were unable to stay for a longer period of time simply for the thought that this ‘cuisine’ is consumed by so many. Babu confided in us that he didn’t eat much of the food, and on most days just survived on bread and hummus.
It’s difficult to get a real picture of what this place is like, so we have posted a few snaps so you can actually see what the camps are really like yourselves:
Photos from the Labour Camps (not viewable from within the UAE)
The question is this – are these young men exploited? Probably.
Do they think that they are being exploited? Probably not.
We asked Babu whether he likes being in the UAE. “Oh yes, Sir – UAE is very good for me” And, he’s probably right. We gave him a few hundred Dirhams for an Idd treat - I have never seen a grin so wide.