Graduation day: Workers flush with pride as they are presented with certificates and trophies during the labour skills upgrade graduation ceremony at Emirates College XPRESS/Ahmed Ramzan Image Credit: XPRESS/Ahmed Ramzan

Dubai: “Hello, nice to meet you! the 43-year-old greeted me with a firm handshake. “I am Harvinder Singh from Punjab.”

Considering his fluent English, it was hard to believe Singh never spoke a word of the language till about eight months ago.

“We were four brothers and sisters and my father could not afford to put me in an English school,” said the truck driver who went to a Hindi medium school in his hometown in Punjab, India.

“I am grateful that I could learn English in Dubai,” he added, requesting me to switch to English when I slipped into Hindi.

“I can speak English, don’t worry,” he said with pride.

Singh is among hundreds of blue-collar workers in Dubai learning to read, write and speak English, acquire computer and technical skills, all thanks to two NGOs — Savera (an alumni NGO group of India’s prestigious Indian Institute of Management and SmartLife Foundation (a Dubai-based NPO helping empower blue-collar workers in the city).

The courses are held at Al Quoz and Sonapur labour accommodation for two hours every Friday.

Nita Mathur, Chairperson, Savera (Gulf Pan IIM NGO initiative) said: “The training sessions are not just about English, but also equipping workers with as much information as possible.”

A graduate from IIM Kolkata, Mathur and others from IIM have been working tirelessly with these workers.

“As an alumni group, we always wanted to do something for India. And when we voiced this desire to former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam during his visit in January 2011, he told us not to worry about India, but instead focus on doing something for Indians here [Dubai].”

Goaded into action, the Savera group devised a module-based approach to help teach different skills to workers from the sub-continent.

heartening response

So far 100 workers have passed various levels of English and computer training. This year the group has already recorded 200 registrations.

“All the courses are given totally free to the workers. The course materials have been designed internally by Savera volunteers. A number of IIM executives, university professors put their heads together to standardise a curriculum for the various courses,” explained Dr Suresh Nanda, Strategy and Project Head for Savera and an IIM graduate from Kolkata.

Nanda said that in the first month workers learn how to frame a sentence using simple present tense. “After two months, they learn how to use present continuous tense, simple past tense in a sentence. At the end of the three-month course, the workers have to give a two minute impromptu speech on a random topic in front of the class.”

Similar course materials are prepared for teaching computer and technical skills.

“For example, if somebody is an electrician, we impart technical knowledge that can make him more proficient in his job and perhaps give him a bigger opportunity in the future,” said Nita.

Learning English is helping these workers land better jobs, get promotions, better wages. And yes, earn respect.

Singh’s case for learning English was clear. “My best friend in Canada has been asking me to come and work there. But he said that I would need to have basic knowledge in reading, writing and spoken English. I am happy I got this opportunity,” he said.

For others the free courses have come like a godsend. Take the case of 38-year-old Dheba Lama. The Nepalese store-keeper never got to learn English because it wasn’t taught at his school in his hometown Phulashi. “I had two brothers and two sisters and my father could not afford to put me in an English medium school in Kathmandu. In Dubai, English courses are priced at around Dh600 and above which is unaffordable for people like us.

“I am so happy now that I am able to learn English - and that too for free.” He said English was important in his work. “As a storekeeper, my job is to deliver foodstuff to ships and many times I am required to explain things in English. Earlier, I was not confident. But it’s different now as I can talk in English easily.”

For Indian electrician Ritesh Patel, 28, learning English helped him get a Dh500 monthly raise. “My boss is happy with my English and since I also work very hard at my job, I was given a promotion,” said Patel who hails from Keshli village in Gujarat.

Indian office boy Venkatreddy Karri, 36, has not only learnt English, he has also picked up computer skills -- a remarkable achievement for someone who studied in a Telugu medium school in Andhra Pradesh till grade 12. Armed with his new skills, Karri, now works at an office in Emirates Towers.

Of late, he has become proficient in Microsoft Word and Excel. “I also know formatting, software installation, how to send an email and use the internet.”

Al Salam Bashir, 26, from Pakistan, who joined the course a few days back, said he wants to learn English so he can converse with cousins living in London. “I grew up in a small district where English is an alien language. So when I heard about this course from a friend, I wasted no time in joining it,” he said.

When XPRESS visited an Al Quoz building last week where a training session was under way, scores of workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal were taking lessons.

Some were there so they could get a passport to Canada, some were looking for a promotion, some wanted better jobs, while others just wanted respect. “In Dubai, if you know English, people respect you. I am planning to start looking for a better job,” said Sri Lankan car technician Upur Nishant, 25, who recently learnt to write his own CV.

Zayed University teacher British Peter Tall, 54, who is part of the voluntary group that dedicates three hours of their weekened to brush up the English skills of workers said:. “It is a way of giving back something to society. We live comfortable lives; these workers don’t. Education can empower them and this we are here”

American expat Jennifer Vahanian, an English teacher at HCT – Dubai Men’s College said the workers are keen learners. “They want to improve their lives, get better jobs and earn better salaries and they think learning English can help them.”

For further details write to: sureshnanda@gmail.com