Catching up on Safety

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The need for better regulations within the Northern Emirates' booming construction sector has been highlighted by a tragic construction accident in Ajman last week.

The accident occurred at the site of the Laguna Beach Hotel on Ajman Corniche. Several labourers, believed to be Indian nationals from the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh regions, were inspecting a leak beneath recently poured concrete in the basement of the site when the slabs above them collapsed. According to an eyewitness, seven labourers, all below the age of 25, were caught in the collapse.

An extensive rescue effort, involving Ajman Police and Civil Defence teams, as well as rescue units from Dubai, worked non-stop to search for survivors. Their efforts were hampered though by the rapidly setting concrete, and no survivors were found. Police have detained all officials involved in the project for questioning.

Seidco Construction Company, the contractors responsible for the site, reported that the flooring collapsed some 20 minutes after being laid. Engineer Ahmed Abdul Razaq, Assistant Director General of Technical Affairs at Ajman Municipality, said that preliminary investigations revealed the rebar and concrete used were of high quality, forcing speculation that the accident was a result of excess volumes of concrete being poured. Colonel Ali Abdullah Alwan, Chief of Ajman Police, expressed his anger at the accident, describing it as "pure carelessness".

The incident is the latest in a line of construction accidents to befall migrant labourers in the UAE. At least 12 construction workers have died in the past year in work-related accidents, and dozens more have been injured. While standards have recently improved in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, some industry observers believe that practices in the northern emirates are falling behind. Mohammed Hamed Al Oupy, Manager of Health, Safety, Environment and Quality at Mirdif Security and Safety Consultants, described the situation in the northern emirates as "shocking".

"There is hardly any concern for safety, yet many of the contractors there also operate in Dubai where they implement extensive safety mechanisms" Al Oupy told Emirates Business 24/7.

A new safety code is currently being prepared by Dubai Municipality, which will reportedly bring safety practices in the construction sector in line with UK and US standards. However, the code will only be municipal, not federal. According to Al Oupy, "it is not enough for Dubai or Abu Dhabi alone to implement safety norms".

Long hours and poor safety standards, coupled with high inflation driving down the value of incomes, have already led to protests this year among the migrant labourers of the northern emirates. In March there was violence on the streets of Sharjah as hundreds of workers attacked offices and set fire to cars. Police arrested over 500 South Asian labourers during the protests.

With the northern emirates currently enjoying a boom in construction, labour conditions represent the hidden side of prosperity. Ajman in particular is enjoying high levels of foreign investment growth: 33% of new developments are owned by foreigners, compared with an 11% average for the rest of the UAE, and the vast majority of this investment is in bricks and mortar. The largest project to date in Ajman - a EUR40m project by Solidere at Al Zorah - has also just been announced. As the size and extent of real estate grows though, so too must the oversight of those charged with building it.

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