A classy way of improving conditions for the workers

Unrest among labourers has been one of the major issues in Dubai. Hugo Berger visits Sonapur labour camp with a social worker who is trying to improve the standard of living for construction workers.

Lessons in health and well-being: Montgomery?s programme includes some simple exercises and then tutorials on hygiene and diets.
Lessons in health and well-being: Montgomery?s programme includes some simple exercises and then tutorials on hygiene and diets.

Last month, a series of major strikes at some of Dubai's most prestigious projects made headlines across the globe.

Reporters descended on the camps where the workers lived to find out what was causing the unrest.

Investigations revealed workers living in cramped, squalid conditions where depression, homesickness and ethnic tensions were rife.

Many experts believed that if changes were not made, the city's reputation as a modern metropolis could be permanently damaged.

One person who was moved by the press reports was Lakshmi Montgomery, who had just arrived in Dubai with her husband, Brian.

As a trained dietician and fitness expert, she was running well-being programmes for children and office workers.

Deciding that she couldn't ignore the problems, she started to adapt her techniques for the labourers. She wrote to a number of contractors, asking if they would like to make use of her knowledge.

One of those that accepted her request was engineering firm GMT Consortium. The company had already made moves to improve conditions in its block in the Sonapur labour camp but wanted to do more.

After a tour of the facilities, Montgomery came up with a holistic scheme called Campfit to help the workers.

Among the most serious problems they suffered from were dehydration and anaemia - a lack of iron in the blood.

She immediately brought in a scheme where workers had to drink half a litre of water every hour.

She also told the camp chefs to add iron-rich vegetables to the huge pots of curry prepared in the kitchen.

Montgomery also helped set up rooms for games and exercise, along with clean kitchens and washroom facilities.

Another room in the living area has been turned into a classroom, where she runs twice-weekly, hour-long sessions.

Her lessons start with basic stretching exercises, followed by tutorials on hygiene and diets.

They are followed by simple English lessons, in which each worker comes to the front of the class and draws letters on a whiteboard.

Despite having just spent a hard day on the building site, the workmen clearly enjoy the lessons.

But although they may seem like fun, Montgomery said they had a serious message.

She said: "They are all in the construction industry but many of them cannot read any English or even their own language, so they make the same mistakes again and again.

"All the signs on construction sites are in English, so if they cannot understand the language they are putting themselves in constant danger.

"They are all away from home to send money back. But they don't know how to send money home because they can't read, so they can't manage their money."

Montgomery believes that the programme is having a huge benefit, not only to workers but to construction companies as well.

She said: "These companies have targets to reach and so they can't reach them if they have too many people off sick, so both sides suffer.

"There is certainly some unrest because there are people from different cultures living in the camps. If you introduce education and recreation it binds them so they make friends and are better at working together on site."

John Clarke, senior construction manager, Bovis Lend Lease, has been employing workers who have benefited from the Campfit programme on the Dubai International City project.

He said: "Lakshmi's programme goes along with our company policy and we thought it sounded really interesting.

"It's about people, it's about how we live our lives - we should look after each other. If people think safe, they will act safely."

Saeed Hashemi Nejad, vice project manager, GMT Consortium, agreed there were big benefits.

"The programme builds a closer community among the people here so they are not just locked away in their own rooms.

"There has been a history of construction workers here committing suicide because they are so unhappy. When you spend more time with them, you can analyse which guys are stressed out and then you can help them."

Although his company's camps were of a decent standard, many others still lived up to the reputation of being squalid.

He said: "GMT welcomes this programme, regardless of the budget, because it will mean a happier and better workforce.

"The health standards in some of the camps here are sub-zero. You have eight guys in a small room, none of whom have been taught about health issues. So it is very unpleasant.

"But GMT is open-minded enough to grasp what Lakshmi is doing and bring her programme to the camps."

One worker living in the camp, Zafar M, who comes from Pakistan, also praised the scheme. He said: "We are happier now and the food is a lot better."

So, although Montgomery has only been at the Sonapur camp for a short period the effects seem to have been positive.

Statistics do not yet exist as to whether her techniques have improved productivity or reduced levels of depression or sickness.

Yet if more large companies take up similar programmes, Dubai could again be known for the vast scale of its construction projects and not the plight of the people building them.

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