The Harrowing and Horrifying Tales of the Sonapur Labour Camps

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As anyone reading this blog post might be aware of, we recently had a Food Collection Drive at school and I’d go into details but I don’t have to because you can soon read all about it in our newsletter so go check that out! But, to give you a brief idea, we collected enough dry food stuff to feed an entire labour camp for almost a whole month! So, thank you to everyone who contributed to make this happen, you keep the world in orbit!

To begin with, I think a history lesson is due. We’ve been learning about this since our Foundation Stages and every year on the 2nd of December, we watch it being celebrated with full zeal and fervor. 2nd of December 1971, an important day for the Arab world – the formation of the United Arab Emirates. Since its union, the UAE has left no stone unturned to progress and develop into what it is today. From a land of deserts and the rare high rise building, to a full-fledged hub for international events and also, a world famous vacation spot to the stars and the ordinary folk too. We’re known for our world records, our architecture and of course, our world records in said architecture. So, in a span of less than fifty years, the United Arab Emirates has managed to be the fastest developing country in the entire world! Throughout all time periods! So obviously, it’s no wonder that the people living here and who this country belongs to have so much pride about it. But all of this didn’t just happen with the swoosh of a wand or the flick of a switch, it took years of planning and most importantly – blood, sweat and tears. Literal blood, sweat and tears.

R.K.M used to live in a rural state of India. He was the only breadwinner for his entire extended family and things weren’t looking too good. The kids had to go to school and at the end of the day, someone was always left to sleep with an empty stomach. That’s when this man from an agency met with him and at first, it was like an answer to all of R.K.M’s prayers. A job opportunity in Dubai where he’d earn almost three times every month what he generally earned in a month! He’d be given food, accommodation and he could come back home every year for two months to visit his family. The only catch was the fees the agency required to get all his paperwork in order and after selling his family land to fund this, thinking he’d be able to buy out at least three more of the same value when he’d be done with his contracted time, R.K.M bid his family adieu – not knowing that it was probably for the last time.

Upon landing in Dubai, the contracting company that hired many like R.K.M through these “scouting” agencies, seized the passports of these men and claimed they’d keep them for “visa issues” that may come up. That should’ve been the beginning of the first warning bell ringing in the heads of these men, but they uncomplainingly did as they were told. It was after this that these men were told about the jobs they’d actually be doing. Lured by promises of being office boys and shop assistants, they got the shock of their lives when they were told they were actually hired to help in the construction of high rise buildings that the country was so famous for. A lot of them had health issues that restricted such physical labour but since they had signed a contract and spent a lot of money to get here, they had no choice but to do as told.

I haven’t even gotten to the worst parts yet and it already sounds like a nightmare. Imagine the shock of these men when they came across an actual living nightmare – their living conditions.

Sonapur is a very famous district between Sharjah and Dubai, commonly known for the extreme traffic levels during rush hours. A huge percentage of us pass it every day on our way to school and it literally looks like a wasteland of a lot of undisposed trash, long forgotten building materials and just an overall aura of absolute grey. The buildings and warehouses are dingy and there’s not a single sign of anything except for utter despair growing anywhere. Now imagine living there. Imagine coming back from a long

day at work where you were already in the hot sun to this. Around 10+ labourers have to share the same room, sleeping on bunk beds that are often infested with bed bugs. Toilets are shared and a mess hall is used where almost the same dishes are distributed to these workers every day.

But still, they soldier on, hoping that their hopefully generous pay compensates for all of these hardships. After all, they’d be willing to do anything for their families. And that’s when another calamity strikes, their monthly pay is less than half of what was promised. Their employers refuse to admit that they were going to pay these workers anything more than that and that’s when the ultimate realization hits – they are well and truly trapped. Left with no other choice, they are forced to work long hours in the extreme heat of Dubai, with hazardous equipment and dangerous heights and since they paid a good amount of money to get here, selling their small businesses, farms, lands, etc., they have to.

When the recession of 2008 hit the Middle East, a lot of the building projects were put on hold because of the lack of funding. Contracting companies couldn’t afford to pay their employees so they left the country, taking the passports and legal documents of these workers with them. It was during this time that there was a sharp increase in suicides in labour camps. Unable to basically do anything, these workers thought suicide was the only option left for them. Many also turned to recreational drugs to numb the feelings of dejection.

Unfortunately, these tales you had to hear of people like R.K.M and his colleagues aren’t fabricated. These people are the reason we have all these accolades of world records and are the fastest growing country in the world. If we don’t take initiatives to help out, no one else well. So, the next time you hear of anything that may help these people, please do not hesitate. You may just save a life.

Asma Rashid, AS level

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  • Fatima Akhtar

    A detailed article which draws a perfect picture of life behind the sky scrappers!

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