I first met the folks at SmartLife a little under a year ago to find out about their “Adopt-a-Laborer” program that pairs low-skilled workers with a white-collar counterpart. Over the course of the last year, I’ve kept up with them as they planned hundreds of Ramadan iftars and prepared for their seminal event, the SmartCup cricket tournament, which I write about here. 




Cricket Match Levels the Playing Field for Laborers in Gulf


DUBAI — Sanjeev Kumar’s face lights up when he speaks about days playing cricket with friends in his native Punjab in India before moving to Dubai in 2009 to work in a glass factory. “I so much love cricket,” he said, shyly, in halting English.

Last Friday, in an indoor sports facility in an industrial quarter in Dubai, Mr. Kumar played again, for the first time in more than two years. He bowled with a furious circular swing of his arm, intent on eliminating the batsmen at the wicket.

His exhilaration came from more than running around the pitch. Many of his teammates, as well as players on the opposing side, were office workers, the sort of people who usually do not even give laborers like him a passing glance.

Everyone was speaking with me respectfully,” he said, speaking more easily in his native Hindi. “It was as if we blue-collars are like everyone else here.”

The tournament, held in Dubai’s gritty Al Quoz district, was sponsored by SmartLife, a local charity. In speed-cricket games limited to a maximum eight overs for each team, 24 teams with an equal number of laborers and white-collar workers began playing at 9 a.m., whittling down the contenders until only two teams battled for the trophy by evening. A disc jockey provided a thundering Bollywood soundtrack.

Dubbed “SmartCup,” the tournament might have lacked the star power or the spectator crowds of sporting events usually hosted by Dubai. SmartCup drew few more than 80 fans, compared with the 8,000 who came out on a Friday a few weeks earlier to see Pakistan sweep England in their test cricket series. “But these guys will be speaking about this cricket day for three months,” said Arun Krishnan, an Indian who works in information technology and one of SmartLife’s founders. “Many of these workers, they come here alone, without their families. They have no one.”

(Gabriela Maj)

Laborers in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations exist on the periphery of everyday life. Predominantly from the Subcontinent, they live in labor camps often located away from the city center in the desert where they share dormitory rooms with at least four bunk beds. Privacy is nonexistent; the men are here only to work. Six days a week they are bused in and out of the construction sites or factories that have powered the Gulf economy.

Accounts of being exploited by unscrupulous employers are commonplace. These laborers find they have little choice but to accept reduced pay or squalid living conditions since their families have often mortgaged lands or sold jewelry in order to pay agencies to bring them to the Gulf.

SmartLife’s founders say they want to give as many workers as possible the tools to move out of their low-skilled employment purgatory.

Two years ago, the charity started an “Adopt-a-Laborer” program that paired a worker with a white-collar mentor. Mentors must be in touch with their adoptees at least once a week. Some pairs have a structured time for computer lessons or help in wiring money home to families. “For other blue-collars, it’s just someone they can talk to,” Mr. Krishnan said.

Existing charitable efforts to donate clothing and other supplies to workers or to help send a destitute laborer back to his home country are noble, but palliative, says Andrew Gardner, a cultural anthropologist who has spent a decade studying the lives of migrant workers in Bahrain and Qatar. “Rarely are these efforts able to address the underlying causes that were producing these problems in the first place,” he said.

“Pairing migrants with people who are capable of helping them navigate the complex bureaucracy,” he added, “makes a big difference in their lives.”

This year, SmartLife’s ambitions have grown. Volunteers who teach English classes will now receive training from the Eton Language Institute, and professional groups like the alumni association of the Indian Institute of Management are working with the charity to develop courses to provide certification in Microsoft Office software or master plumbing, depending on the laborer’s skills and aspirations.

This spring, SmartLife plans to open a library in a donated warehouse in Al Quoz for use by laborers as a living room of sorts where they can read, study and socialize.

“That’s the sort of dream that they have oftentimes in coming to the Gulf in the first place: that they’re going to have some kind of opportunity to move up,” said Mr. Gardner, who teaches at the University of Puget Sound in Washington and is the author of “City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain.”

It is no accident that SmartLife is run by those from the Subcontinent seeking to aid their compatriots. “The Indian community has some of the highest positions in Dubai and many of these sorts of middle positions,” Mr. Gardner added. “The shared language and shared culture helps them find these men and help them along their way.”

There are about 1.13 million Indian laborers in the Emirates, according to the Consul General of India’s office here, a number that vastly exceeds SmartLife’s resources and capacity to help. Still, the individuals who have been brought into the fold are grateful.

Firoz Khan is a 23-year-old air-conditioning technician and has been taking English classes for two years. He says learning English has given him the confidence to seek promotions at his company and he has tripled his wages to $681 a month. “English means a better life,” he said over a lunch break.

As play resumes, a handful of new families join sisters-in-law Sharbana and Sareena Kunnummen, who are cheering on their team. Their husbands are playing as part of the team’s white-collar contingent but Sareena says she feels a need to root for the laborers as well. “We notice them working and we feel bad that they are alone,” she said. “They don’t have families here, so we can help them feel like somebody is with them.”

Mr. Kumar’s bowling was not enough to carry his Lightning Leaders to victory. They lost in the quarterfinals. Still, he joined the crowd and watched until the day ended with a five-run victory for the Menacing Mammoths over the Zealous Zebras, 39-34. A ceremony that was part trophy presentation and part Honor Roll featured a few SmartLife students offering testimonials in halting but proudly spoken English.

The evening ran late and by the time the presentations were over it was almost 9 p.m.

As a sandstorm swirled around the Dubai sky, the white-collar players quickly hurried into their cars. Around the corner, a white bus idled, waiting to take the laborers back to the camps they now call home.

2 thoughts on “Labors of love

  1. Thanks so much for doing this story. I’m based on Abu Dhabi and involved in a project called “Love Abu Dhabi” and we’d like to do something similar here.

    1. hi jim. thanks for reading my story! good luck with your group. it’s a worthwhile endeavor; these workers do seem to really appreciate the effort!

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