The UAE may be going through an economic slowdown similar to what is happening elsewhere in the world and companies may be slashing employee welfare budgets or adopt harsh austerity measures to streamline their bottom line. Even in such harsh economic times, a leading fuel marketing retail firm, Emirates Petroleum Products Company (Eppco), part of Emirates
National Oil Company (Enoc), a wholly owned Dubai Government Company, has been maintaining and upgrading its state of the art labour accommodation, in Sonapur and Al Qouz, with all the ultramodern facilities.
More than four thousand workers of different nationalities from India, Pakistan, Philippines, Nepal, Kenya, Sri Lanka and a few Arab countries are working in the Enoc/Eppco Retail division including 900 female staff enjoy a higher and better living standard than their counterparts living in other camps. The Enoc labour camps are also places of peaceful existence for different nationalities that speak different languages and hail from different cultural backgrounds and a lot of effort is made to integrate all workers into the Enoc/Eppco work culture.
Emirates National Oil Company (Enoc) labour camps in Sonapur and Al Qouz houses nearly 4,000 employees in the retail division. Despite minor hiccups and employees woes about the escalating cost of food served by private catering firms, the two labour camps of Enoc/Eppco can be termed as role model for other UAE companies, human rights organization, Dubai Municipality and even the Dubai Police.
Emirates 24|7 reporter visited these labour camps managed by Enoc Properties and spoke to the senior managers, camp managers, workers and supervisors to get a first-hand glimpse of what appeared to be the most modern labour camps in the UAE frequented and lauded by the human rights groups, Dubai Police, Dubai Municipality and others concerned about workers
While driving towards the Sonapur Camp, laundry and waste pile ups could be visible in some of the other congested and cramped labour camps, once you reach the Enoc/Eppco labour accommodation area, you are entering a different world all together. Once you go inside the camp with 268 rooms in Sonapur, the differences are more remarkable. Each room in Enoc camp houses only four employees, there are no bunker beds that cuddle together eight to ten employees in some of the worst camps visited by this reporter. There are separate bathrooms, free Internet, a common catering facility, kitchen to prepare tea or coffee and even a gymnasium and state of the art laundry that freely washes the workers uniforms.
James Feir, Labour Accommodation Coordinator and Anwar Hussein, have guided this reporter through the various facilities in these camps said most of the workers residing in these camps are better off than their counterparts in other accommodations. Some of the employees too shared this optimism. Shafi (Name changed), a cashier in an Eppco outlet, said: “I am living here for three years and there is no reason to grumble about the quality of life and hygienic conditions. We get all modern facilities including free Internet, laundry service and unlimited food at a reasonable rate. There are some complaints from a section of the Filippino employees who have to spend more money on food.”
Majid H. Sabt, Retail Operations Manager, Eppco, said: “We have nearly 4,000 employees who work eight hours a day and spending 16 hours in their accommodation. We ensure that their work place and house are equally good and comfortable. It was about six years ago that Enoc took a bold decision to build its own labour accommodations in Sonapur and Al Qouz. Now these camps have become role models for other UAE companies because we provide the best possible facilities for our workers. Thanks to the high-tech facilities for a peaceful life humming with entertainment and sports activities, these camps are frequented by the human rights groups, the Dubai Police, Dubai Municipality and others.”
He said some of the facilities in the camps are being upgraded and there are plans to add more labour accommodation. Emirates National Transport company transports the workers to their work sites and back to accommodation – free of cost.
He said Enoc has two huge labour camps with several blocks for male and female staff in Al Qouz and Sonapur and it has leased a few camps for the staff that prefer to stay outside the company’s own accommodation. In each camps there are sports facilities for basketball, football, volleyball, snooker, badminton, billiards, free Internet and even playstation games station.
“The company made a long term investment of about Dh30 million to build the two own labour camps. As the staff is living in our own accommodation, we can maintain the quality of services provided to them and ensure a saving for the company for the annual rent paid earlier. If we find suitable land in Sharjah, we will build more labour camps and shift our staff, currently living in leased buildings in Sharjah, and other Emirates.”
He said the catering company in Sonapur was changed three times to ensure better quality of food, but there are some complaints pending.
“We have comfortable and hygienic camps with indoor and outdoor sports facilities, laundry and a canteen that meets international standards,” he added. While the camps in the Al Qouz are accommodate male and female retail staff in separate blocks, the Sonapur camp accommodates only male staff. The Al Qouz camp has five blocks, two for females and 3 for male – there is a watertight compartmentalization and male staff is not allowed to enter female camp and vice versa. They are strictly monitored by 24 hour security officers and male and female supervisors. “If a male is found in a female camp, he is terminated immediately, and same will happen if a female is found in a male camp. We also terminate people who use alcohol in the camp and there is no excuse.” Similarly, if any employee engages in a fight, he/she is also terminated on the spot.
“We don’t allow inmates to cook their own food because of security and hygienic reasons. When around 4,000 staff is allowed to cook, there will be a lot of hygienic issues and the facility may be misused. The major challenge is from the Civil Defence as it will be a fire hazard. Some people don’t know how to cook and others leave everything in a mess.”
In the 24 hours convenient stores, female employees are not asked to work at night shifts . “We don’t want to risk our female employees from some strange customers who come at night. Some people could be drunk or misbehave and we have strict policy about putting lady staff at night shifts,” said Sabt.
Catering for different nationalities
“We have allowed a catering company to provide food and after a lot of complaints about the quality of food, we have changed them. We don’t take any rent from the catering company, but we control the price of food served to the employees. Three meals a day is available for Dh 13 (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and in face outside food is more expensive. We cannot keep all the 1,000 people of different nationalities happy about food.
“We have all high tech facilities here and the living standard is of course good. However, the cost and the quality of food served is not always impressive. We have to spend a major chunk of our salary for food only. Dh1,200 is the monthly salary for the forecourt staff and Dh 1,400 for cashiers and others in the convenient stores.
“Food expenses continue to skyrocket and we could adjust within our budget, if cooking is allowed. Outside food is very expensive and even the caterers food is sometimes monotonous and not so good.”
The food problem is more for the Filipino and Nepalese employees, whose number is not as big as the other Asian workers. However, Majid beg to dispute this complaint.
“Every year we study the salary structure of our staff and compare with the salary offered by other retail firms. We have just completed our 2011 study and our salary levels are still higher than other oil marketing companies or global food retail chains. In fact we are paying more than other retailers.
“As there are 4,000 employees of different nationalities, there will always be complaints and grievances. We cannot keep all of them happy always.”
Throughout the year, there are sports and events competition in which teams of different nationalities play and win trophies and certificates, which will be useful in their career advancement. Whenever there is a festival season, the camp managers help form a coordination committee with representation from the relevant employees who manages the events, with the financial support of the company. Whether it is Ramadan, Christmas, Onam or Deepawali, to name a few festivals celebrated by the Asian workers, these camps witness special events and intercultural activities and celebrations.
While the Filipino workers are fond of basketball and volley ball, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi workers will be interested in cricket or football. Employees with special talents are spotted and encouraged. “We are giving free laundry service to wash the employees uniforms. For their personal dress, we do charge. For those who don’t want to pay the laundry charges, there are 40 coin operated washing machines, which are used by the employees to clean their dresses. A lot of staff use this facility because it is relatively cheap,” said Antony Fernandes, in charge of the in-house laundry service. There are also maintenance and cleaning staff, which ensure that the waste and sewerages are regularly removed and workers themselves have to deposit the waste generated in their rooms to the nearest bins.
National Day celebrations
The labour camps celebrate many festivities including the UAE National Day. On December 2, 2011 the Multi Court Ground in Enoc II camp at Sonapur will witness among other events, paper dance, musical chair and Lemon race as well as a tug of war (Vadam Vali).
“We are celebrating the National Day with many events and programmes. We expect a few hundred employees including the female members living in other camps to participate in these competitions and events,” said James Feir, Retail Staff Administrator, Enoc Retail. He said last year the Al Qouz camp inmates celebrated the UAE National Day with a parade and other activities. In addition to selling the National Day Monuments like the UAE flags, special caps, ornaments and bracelets, the employees working in petrol stations and convenient stores have special attires of attractive colours and designs.
“For every special event there will be a separate committee, which will be in charge of conducting the events. There are Annual Sports events and special tournaments occasionally. The winners get trophy and their talents are recognized. The female staff residing in a new accommodation in Bin Jarsh, near Al Maha Military Camp will also be allowed in the male camp in Sonapur because they don’t have separate venue to conduct such facilities. Staff from Northern Emirates will also join the National Day celebrations. Employees of different nationalities and religions are also allowed to have their regional celebrations. Every year they celebrate the Christmas, New Year, Onam (festival of Kerala), Eid and Ramadan and the company allocates some fund for such programmes. The company also organises Ummra packages at relatively cheap rate and many employees have already performed the religious pilgrimate in Saudi Arabia.
Emarati managers in petrol pumps
Majid H. Sabt, Retail Operations Manager, Emirates Petroleum Products Company (Eppco), said the company is currently training 15 Emaratis to work as site managers, currently all the site managers in the company are expatriates. Enoc/Eppco has a network of over 166 petrol stations and convenient stores with other facilities like car wash, oil change and other automobile related work. There are more than 4,000 employees, mostly Asian expatriates and there is no Emarati directly working in the forecourts, dispensing petrol or as cashiers. “We are training 15 Emaratis to work as site managers. These are young graduates who will manage some of our sites. We have tried earlier to employ more Emarati managers, but some of them are promoted and others left.” Even though Eppco closed all of its outlets in Sharjah, none of the employees are laid off or terminated. “We have got turnover and the employees from the Sharjah sites are relocated to other sites. Now we are going to recruit more staff for the next year.”