Dubai: They still wake before dawn in desert dormitories that pack a dozen men or more to a room. They still pour concrete and tie steel rods in temperatures that top 40 degree celcius. They still spend years away from families in India and Pakistan to earn about $1 (Rs40.5) an hour. They remain bonded to employers under terms that critics liken to indentured servitude.
But construction workers, a million-strong here and famously mistreated, have won some humble victories. After several years of unprecedented labour unrest, the government is seeking peace with this army of sweat-stained migrants who make local citizens a minority in their own country and sustain one of the world’s great building booms. Regulators here have enforced midday sun breaks, improved health benefits, upgraded living conditions and cracked down on employers brazen enough
to stop paying workers at all.
Cracked dreams: A file picture of Asian workers at a building site in Dubai. In the UAE, foreigners make up about 85% of the population at 4.5 million, including most of the 1.2 million construction workers.
The result is a study of halting change in a region synonymous with foreign labour and, for many years, labour abuse.
Many rich countries, including the US, rely on cheap foreign workers. But no country is as dependent as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where foreigners make up about 85% of the population and 99% of the private workforce. From bankers to barbers, there are 4.5 million foreigners here, compared with 800,000 Emirati citizens, according to the ministry of labour. About two-thirds of the foreigners are South Asians, including most of the 1.2 million construction workers.
The labour agitation came as a surprise in this city of glass towers and marble-tiled malls, where social harmony is part of the marketing plan and political action can seem all, but extinct. But when thousands of migrant construction workers walked off the job last year, blocking traffic and smashing parked cars, it became clear that the non-natives were restless.
“I’m not saying we don’t have a problem,” said Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi, the UAE’s labour minister. “There is a problem. We’re working to fix it.” Like many countries, only more so, the UAE needs the foreign labourers, but fears their numbers. The recent focus on the workers’ conditions still leaves them under close watch, segregated from the general population, with no right to unionize and no chance at citizenship. “We want to protect the minority, which is us,” Al Kaabi said.
Among those buffeted by recent events is Sami Yullah, a 24-year-old pipe fitter from Pakistan. Like many workers, he paid nearly a year’s salary in illegal recruiter’s fees, despite laws here that require employers to bear all the hiring costs. In exchange, he was promised a job building sewer systems at a monthly salary of about $225, nearly twice what he earned at home.
Yullah found the work harder and more hazardous than he had expected. Two co-workers were killed on the job, he said, and two others injured, when they fell through a manhole. Conditions at the workers’ camp where he lived, rudimentary at best, disintegrated when his employer let the water and electricity lapse. Then a problem even more basic arose: the company stopped paying the workers.
The owner kept saying, “Wait a minute, I will get some money,” said Yullah, who joined about 400 co-workers last year in walking off the job.
In a break with past practice, Al Kaabi’s labour ministry backed the workers. Tapping a company bank guarantee, it restored the camp utilities and paid some of the back wages. It barred the company, Industrial and Engineering Enterprises, from hiring more workers, leading it to close its UAE operation. And it helped workers such as Yullah—who is still owed nearly six months’ back pay—find new jobs. “The company cheated me,” he said. “But the labour office is standing with the labourers.”
The UAE is a rags-to-riches story on a nation-state scale. Until the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, there was little here, but Bedouins and sand. To extract the oil and build a modern economy, the rulers imported a multinational labour force that quickly outnumbered native Arabs.
An ethos of tolerance has prevailed, with churches, bars and miniskirts coexisting with burkas. But the construction workers, who build hotel rooms that rent for $1,000 a night and malls that sell shoes for $1,000 a pair, live segregated lives outside of this prosperous, cosmopolitan world.
Sonapur, a camp that’s half-an-hour’s drive into the desert from Dubai, houses 50,000 workers and feels like an army base. Two- and three-storeyed concrete-block buildings stretch across the horizon, throngs of South Asian labourers fill the streets and desert dust fills the air.
Building skyscrapers is inherently dangerous, especially in the heat. Until the government recently began insisting on summer sun breaks, one Dubai emergency room alone was reporting thousands of heat exhaustion cases each month. In a rare count, Construction Week, a local trade publication, canvassed foreign embassies and estimated that nearly 900 foreign construction workers died in 2004, though it could not say what percentage of the deaths were work-related. Standing on Sonapur’s sand-blown streets, some workers count their blessings. “The work here is no problem,” said Dinesh Bihar, 30, whose $150 salary is four times what he made when he left India.
Some workers count their debts. “I was so eager to come to Dubai, I didn’t ask questions,” said Rajash Manata, who paid placement fees of nearly $3,800. Some simply count the days until they see their families again. Several years of quickening protests, mostly over unpaid wages, peaked in March 2006, when hundreds of workers went on a rampage near the unfinished Burj Dubai, which is being built as the world’s tallest building. Eight months later, Human Rights Watch, a New York advocacy group, accused the UAE of “cheating workers”.
Faced with complaints about low wages and difficult work, Al Kaabi repeats a point often made here: Many workers face greater hardships at home for less pay. “We don’t force people to come to this country,” he said. “They’re building a whole new life for their families.” Some come from backgrounds so impoverished, he said, “they don’t know how to use the toilet; they will sit and do it on the ground”.
But Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s West Asia director, said, “That’s what exploitation is—you take advantage of someone’s desperation.”