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'No complaints' in this workers' camp.

By Bonnie James/Deputy News Editor

Given that Qatar has been receiving flak from international rights organisations for improper treatment of migrant workers, it is tempting to generalise about the situation in the sector.When Human Rights Watch stated that many "workers slept in unclean, overcrowded barracks, sometimes with no mattresses or air-conditioning," it created a lot of negative press.

It was in this context that Duncan C Inglis, health safety and environment manager for French company Bouygues Batiment International, Qatar (BYBQ), wrote a letter to Gulf Times recently, stating that "there could be improvement in some areas and I do not agree that it is all negative."

BYBQ is the principal contractor for the construction of the Qatar Petroleum District Project, formerly known as Barwa Financial District, in the West Bay area of Doha.

"Visit our site and labour camp and show the world that there are positive things happening in Qatar," Inglis wrote.

Workers engaged in a game of volleyball

Grabbing the opportunity, especially since such invitations are rare for a number of reasons, Gulf Times decided to visit the labour camp to verify the claim.

The camp is at Street 52 of the Industrial Area. "We have accommodated here about 450 workers from India, Nepal and Thailand," Inglis said as he escorted us inside.

These workers are recruited directly by BYBQ whereas the other workers of the project are under Midmac and Al Jaber, two prominent local establishments which are BYBQ's partners in the joint venture known as BMJ.

Camp clerk Wilson John slid open the main door of the building on the left. To the left of the entrance is the visitors' area where the camp inmates are allowed to receive their friends and relatives.

"The visitors' timings, from 7am to 11am and from 2pm to 5pm are strictly enforced and the workers cannot take them to their rooms," explained camp officer Jenaro Caceres.

A large notice board is full of announcements. The food service timings in the mess hall are 3.45am to 6.30am (breakfast), 11am to 1pm (lunch) and 6pm to 8pm (dinner).

"The food schedule is in line with the bus timings from the camp to the site," Inglis said. According to the transport schedule that came into effect from September 1, for the first shift buses leave the camp at 4.45am and start the return trip from the site at 5.10pm, whereas for the second shift, the departure from the camp is at 3.30pm with a return from the site at 3.45am.

Catering is provided by Integral Food Services, a leading player in the field, which delivers food to the camp.

"Lunch for those in the first shift and dinner for those in the second shift are packed in individual tiffin boxes at the mess hall and delivered to the site," said human resources manager Sunil Karkera.

Food is not allowed to be taken to the rooms, which house four workers each, so as to prevent pest infestation. The mess hall, cleaned with disinfectant after every meal, also serves as an indoor games area. It is the venue for a health talk by a doctor once a month.

"Whenever they dine in, the workers line up and serve themselves and there is no restriction on the quantity of food they can take," human resources officer Stanley Raphel said.

Outside the mess hall, there are bins to put food waste and rows of taps for the workers to wash their plates.

Sick workers are offered transportation to a clinic at 7am and 7pm on working days. A doctor is available every Friday in the camp clinic from 9am to 1pm. There are three qualified first aiders. Drinking water is tested once a quarter to ensure purity.

There is a laundry department equipped with washing machines and dryers. The workers deposit their soiled clothes in individual bags and collect them cleaned and pressed after 12 hours.

The bathrooms, built in rows, were very clean, so were the toilets housed in a separate block. In the corridor of the building that houses the bathrooms were a "barber" and "tailor", two workers utilising their skills to earn some extra income.

"We have three workers who take turns as barbers and they have undergone the mandatory annual health check-up conducted by the Supreme Council of Health," Inglis explained while pointing to the wall where the health certificate of the barber on duty was displayed.

On the volleyball court beside one of the buildings two teams of Nepali workers were playing. "We encourage them to form committees for each sport and participate in tournaments being held elsewhere in Qatar. The company can provide sponsorship," Karkera said.

"They just need to tell us what sport equipment they need and we will provide," Inglis said.

A planting drive is in progress with waste oil drums cut into half, painted, filled with soil and kept under the water outlets of the window air conditioners.

"We are putting rubber beadings on the cut edge of the drums to ensure that no one gets hurt accidentally if they trip over one," Inglis said.

There are designated smoking areas outside the buildings and smoking is banned inside. So is alcohol consumption. There are fines for violators as indicated by a list of violations and fines.

As the visit of Gulf Times coincided with the monthly labour camp representatives committee meeting, it provided a further insight into how things work.

Representatives of Nepali, Indian and Thai employees, officials of the catering contractor and BYBQ, company doctor Atef H Rizk and camp officials were present.

Nepali and Indian workers' representatives Keshetra Bahadur Khatri and Yadav Devendra had the same suggestion -- that the vegetarian food should be spiced up a bit more.

This was followed by an active discussion about more carrot being included in the mixed vegetable dish. Almost everyone wanted to limit brinjal to once a week.

"Could we have dosa for breakfast instead of khubz twice a week?" was another suggestion from the Indian side. Karkera announced that the desired changes in the menu could be effected every month.

In reply to a question, he said the Internet browsing facility would be ready by the first week of October. Two cabins have been built for this purpose.

There was a request for a room to keep fitness equipment and Inglis said the camp officer could provide one.

The monthly awards for the cleanest room, camp employee, camp representative and certificate of good practice were presented along with phone cards as gifts.

"I am happy that there are only suggestions and no complaints," Inglis quipped.

Gulf Times also spoke to some of the workers and all said they were satisfied with the living conditions in the camp.

It was time for lunch by then. Being a Friday, chicken biriyani was the main item in addition to plain rice, chicken curry and vegetable curry. The food was good.

The tour of the camp was about to end and Inglis threw a challenge to Gulf Times: "You are free to visit the camp any random day without informing us and write about what you see."

Inglis also asserted that there were good companies in Qatar, taking good care of their workers. "I do not agree that it is all negative and if what we are doing in this camp leads to even the slightest improvement for other workers in Qatar, I will be happy," he added.

BYBQ is concluding its week-long safety campaign with an award ceremony tomorrow at the QPD Project site. The Minister of Labour and the ambassadors of France, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Nepal have been invited.

Gulf Times Newspaper 2012

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Publication:Gulf Times (Doha, Qatar)
Geographic Code:7QATA
Date:Sep 29, 2012
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