Zero accidents. Everyday I pass hoardings and read insistent articles in the local newspaper about the safety of the constructions and gas industries. But I can hardly believe the statistics, when at the same time I see workers running along loose gang-planks fifty floors up in the sky, no helmets or safety precautions of any sort. When I asked Dr Mark about these hoardings he did not comment, but instead offered to take me to the industrial city. Dr Mark is one of a small team of doctors and nurses, less than ten in the team, operating the medical facility in the industrial city. Time to check on the Sheikha’s declarations that the human rights of immigrant workers are fully protected.
We drove out into the desert, with an intense sand storm blasting about us. It wasn’t possible to see even a foot in front of the car and the road vanished in grey swirls. The locals in their tank-like Land Cruisers continued to drive at the normal 120k/p/h minimum. I did not dare breathe, just gripped the seat tight.
Two long hours later the grit clearerd, as we reached the barriers to the industrial city. I had seen glossy brochures about the industrial city in the offices of the Financial Authority. In those brochures, the city was a space age metropolis, all gleaming chrome and immaculate, smiling safety helmet-clad workers. No sign of the mile-upon-mile of barbed wire fences. Razor edged.
I had to take every kind of ID with me, and had already sent scanned copies of everything to a dozen different officials to gain a permit. I tried not to shake going through the spiked gates, while the security guards scrutinised my permit to be there, knowing I had secreted a small camera about my person. Risky, but I was certain they would only check my bag, as I was with a doctor and my credentials showed I worked for a government department. I counted on the cultural mores, where women are not frisked, and afforded more trust and respect than elsewhere, perhaps.
Thankfully, I judged right.
The industrial city is where the vast oil and gas plants are located, along with a port and camps for the immigrant labourers. 130,000 people work in the industrial city and 100,000 of these are young, male, migrant workers, mainly from the Indian sub-continent. They live in camps. This incredible number is set to rise by another 80,000 imminently, when a multi-national gas giant opens a new plant. Monster pipelines scar the desert everywhere, and massive steel power plants with gas burning towers flare, roasting the heavens. The scale of the place is almost impossible to take in. Dr Mark showed me a map, and the distance on the map between two places I was going to visit was about two centimetres, whereas in reality it was twenty kilometres, and the map was a metre long. Every centimetre, apocalyptic.
I was anticipating modern, state-of-the-art facilities, given the wealth of the industry, and the promises in all the glossy brochures. We got out the car at a battered, ancient port-a-cabin in the scrub. This was E camp health centre, not ideally situate, as it was down wind of the refineries, which meant if there was a major incident, it would be incinerated. When a new gas line is opened for several weeks there is a gigantic flare, scorching hundreds of metres up. Being down wind of a flare is hazardous, and that’s even without a major incident. This does not seem to trouble the city planners, despite Dr Mark’s continual protests to them to relocate the health centre.
We walked from the dust straight into the trauma room. No sterile buffer. It was cramped, just a few metres long and wide, bewildering when everything else in the city was so super-sized. Rammed with stretchers, no infection control could be possible. Dr Mark then told me about all the open wounds he treated in this room, the main health issue as the workers fell from scaffolding, or caught themselves in machinery.
Out into a corridor, that served as a mixed ward (medical and surgical), and then to a small room at the back, which was meant to be the isolation unit, but was operating as the centre office. Everything was dilapidated and it reminded me of a land army hut from World War Two. The X-ray room at least did have more modern equipment, but was not insulated, so the staff had to wear beeps to monitor how much radiation exposure they faced. The waiting area was a barn out back. It was crowded with sickly and injured labourers, all silent, crushed; and outside, another huge metal tent acting as a temporary/permanent waiting room, complete with a body lying on the floor, no one taking any attention. Was it a corpse? Dr Mark signalled for us to keep going.
We went to the occupational health unit, which in itself wasn’t all that interesting, just a tatty box, but its location was, as it got me inside a labourer camp. There’s an unspoken rule that expats don’t talk about the camps, not many in reality see them or get inside one. Many deny them. The truth, no one will say, is these places resemble concentration camps. I visited Dachau once. No ovens or gas chambers in the desert. Hardly necessary in 50 degrees heat.
This was more harrowing than Dachau. When I visited there, I cried for days after at the brutality, but it was past. Surely, no one could ever replicate those conditions, not deliberately, commercially? But here, it was now, real. Seeing the labourers turn away their hollowed eyes from me in fear, running at the call of a bell, on stick-thin limbs. Dachau was a memorial to hell on earth; this was actual, live agony.
I looked about in incomprehension at the long, Aryan straight and measured-out rows of port-a-cabins, in massive plots of rocky desert, surrounded by high fences with barbed wire and cameras, security and watch posts. No escape. Inside each cabin there were only rows of wooden, narrow plank bunk beds. No bedding. Outside each cabin, a single tap. Some cabins had rickety aircon, rattling and coughing. Most didn’t, broken. There was one hut with a TV, another that was the canteen.
The labourers work twelve-hour shifts in this 40-50 degree heat, with a one-hour lunch break, six days a week and in shifts that are twenty-four hour. The industrial city never sleeps. Once a month, there is a bus out of the camp and into the capital city, so the workers can wire their paltry earnings home. Downtown in the city, on these days at the souk of money traders I had seen the long queues of weary, dusty men, barely shuffling along. Not for them a cool wander in the sparkling malls; they are banned. Apartheid. No holidays are permitted. The labourers work for two years and then get sent home for a month, and return if their contracts are renewed, and they are still standing. Dr Mark told me they work for salaries of between 800 to just 200 riyal a month, that’s between £115 and £30; and there are many reports of labourers not getting paid at all. The gangmasters fine them for tiny infractions of rules and debts quickly accrue. Dr Mark told me some employers just don’t pay regardless; these are slaves, no one to care or fight for them. Amnesty records this, the Royals deny it, and donate a few more millions to an international good cause.
My next stop was a nursing station. I was shown the book setting out the gas company’s detailed standards for accommodation, hygiene, and food provision. The nurses check and are meant to enforce these standards, although they have no ability to do so. Instead they file a report to an anonymous manager in a far-off Western country, who no doubt deletes it before it even opens on his screen. At first, I was relieved to see there were standards, but as I read on I was sickened. Could you live on two bowls of sloppy rice and gristle each day and still work for twelve long hours of hard labour in the heat? These were the protocols of evil.
The gentle Thai nurses were so distressed by their work and experiences, they were begging for changes to the labour laws. They told me shocking stories about the conditions, and what amounted to state-endorsed and enforced exploitation in these camps. The multi-national gas, oil and construction companies force the labourers to work for little or nothing, turn a blind eye to terrible conditions and can do this because in reality they own these men. These men can’t get out of the camps, even if they could they are not in possession of their passports, airfares, or exit visas, and you can get no where in the desert on foot. So, how easy it is to barely pay them, exploit them for two years then send them home, a bag of bones. This is called ‘kefala’. I call it what it is, slavery.
The work is hard, physical, gruelling. The men I saw were paper-thin, all sinewy-muscle. The level of cardiac arrests was far higher than would be predicted in this group of men, no one could say if this was genetic factors or the conditions. Take a wild guess. TB and other infectious disease outbreaks were not uncommon, because although every worker was tested on entry to the country, often the results did not come through for a couple of weeks, during which time the men were already sent into the city to work and the disease took hold in the cramped cabins.
The nurses, in tears, told me that there was no mental health provision, mental illness was not recognised. The authorities did not record suicides, but they told me of several. Of young men hanging themselves… and worse.
The phenomenal wealth of this country has a dark, evil seam beneath the desert rock and one that we should be conscious of in Europe, as our governments sign massive deals for gas and oil supply from this region. The conditions of the camps will never leave me. The nurses told me of unrecorded accidents: severed limbs, severe head injuries, and darker rumours of the abuse of these men, who are not regarded as human. No wonder there’s such high security, we are not meant to see this shameful prison.
Dr Mark told me that there were three major riots recently, as all services are at breaking point and the facilities are not being expanded at a pace to keep up with the increasing workforce. There are only these three small health centres and a handful of nurse-led first aid points across the city, and those are not 24/7 and can only handle very minor problems. The nearest hospital is two hours away, back in the capital city. The industrial city is running out of water, sub-standard rice and meat is being served, there are complaints about access to medical care, tensions are running high and so the riots.
While I was with the nurses a man came in for a ‘fitness-to-resume-work’ test, his arm had been virtually sliced off in an accident a few months before. He could barely use it, and for some time had been assigned ‘light duties’, but now he was expected to get back on the scaffolding. He was desperate to be signed up healthy, as if not he would be sent home, with no pay for his time here. Above his head, a massive sign stating there had been no accidents this year.