Sunday, June 29, 2008

A request to Mr Fix-It: come back and finish the job

Most of us may have face similar predicaments on maintenance services here in the UAE. Poor customer services with lack of skills and 'too much' excuses are part of parcel living in this region. We have limited options available in the market. However, there are few of them that we have some trusts along the way.

I share this article with a smile. Been there, done that!

My skills at household maintenance are worse than nil. Attempts at DIY usually result in the creation of rather more severe problems, so much so that I am mostly forbidden from gathering my favourite tools — a hammer, super glue and duct tape — to address repairs. I have constantly suffered: in Europe and America, I have grudgingly endured the tyranny of high-priced maintenance; in the Middle East, I have suffered a martyrdom to the inscrutable ways and means of an army of handymen. Looking at both, I choose the former.
Why is it that maintenance is so spectacularly bad in the region? The mere suggestion of preventive maintenance is met with blank stares of incredulity: “What is problem?” inquires the maintenance man when I ask him to come round.“No problem yet, the drains are simply a little slow, which suggests the beginning of a blockage. I don’t want to wake up one morning to find my kitchen swamped with sewage,” I respond.
“Sewage in kitchen? That’s very bad.”“No, not yet, just slow drain,” exasperation creeping into my voice.“So no problem? How I fix no problem?”Eventually I get him to understand that the sink is slightly blocked; when he turns up the next day he brings two car batteries and begins to dump the acid down the drains. “Better than Drano,” he smiles.Fixing explicit problems is no easier, even if they can be readily identified and explained in few words. With most rental properties, there is allegedly a maintenance component that is part of the contract. The large, posh towers seem better than villas; at least there is some chance of mediocre maintenance. But in villas, there is no hope. The strategy seems to be to make maintenance so inept and infuriating as to drive the renter to pay for independent contractors. It works.
I recently hired a highly recommended air-conditioning man to do a thorough cleaning of the nine split-units in my villa. He dutifully appeared with an impressive array of kit and proceeded to wash them inside and out, without making too frightful a mess with the many gallons of filthy water he collected in plastic sheeting over my prized oriental rugs. All told a great success: the A/Cs all blew cold, clean(ish) air. I paid him handsomely and felt smug that for once things had gone according to plan.
And then five of the units began to drip water down the walls. Lots of water. It was not residue from the cleaning, but the condensation that is supposed to be piped to the outside drains. Eight visits later, he has staunched the leaks in all but one; that remaining unit, in my bedroom, now has towels taped around it and a bucket beneath it. I suspect it will remain that way forever.I have countless similar examples. One chap came to fix the heavy metal gates of my driveway. For two hours he swung at them with a sledge hammer and finally managed to get them to close. But could we open them again? A painter came to replace the chalky yellow on the walls with an eggshell white. I bought the paint but he transferred it into a plastic bucket from his last job; my white walls now have purple flecks.
A pipefitter came to plumb in the washing machine. First he knocked a fist-sized hole through the wall to the loo; then he discovered the connection point was somewhere else so he filled the first with plaster and knocked a second hole. The e-vision man drilled holes through my exterior walls and draped cables down the side of my house. The phone company figured it was better to drill through the aluminium window frames to get their wires out. Is it any wonder that whole neighbourhoods look like shantytowns?
Looking back, many of these stories now seem quite funny, but maintenance has safety implications. The standard of electrical work on most residences I have seen is potentially disastrous. Those blackened, melted outlet plugs are a bad sign, and the annoying little shock from the dishwasher can suggest more serious issues. Compromised plumbing and filthy A/C units surely have an influence on health.
The maintenance business here is in dire need of regulation, standardisation and professionalisation. Electricians, plumbers, joiners, A/C technicians and so forth are skilled jobs. How does the resident know that the man who arrives with the toolbox is properly qualified? And if he is, that he is up to date with his skills and the requirements of the latest regulations? As the housing stock increases and the UAE moves towards more owner-occupied housing, the need for quality domestic repair services is going to grow exponentially. The maintenance business needs more than a little maintenance of its own if it is to cope.

Dr Christopher K Brown is Associate Professor of English language and literature at Zayed University

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