Dark side of Dubai’s Economic Boom Exacts Harsh Human Toll
The Times
November 3, 2007

In four years of living in one of Dubai’s most squalid labour camps, Jengir Khan has watched his fellow workers walk off the job over withheld wages, poor safety standards and forced overtime.

But a new grievance is galvanising the thousands of foreign workers who supply virtually all of the manual labour behind the United Arab Emirates’ massive building boom.

In the past week the falling dollar and a steadily rising cost of living have prompted a series of violent strikes by workers, whose demand is simple: they want more pay.

“I no longer have enough money to send home to my family. My expenses are too great,” Mr Khan, 33, a crane operator from Haripur, Pakistan, said. He was jailed last week after a protest against his employer, Pauling Middle East Company, a general contracting company, turned into a riot.

His complaints might sound mundane in a place where foreign workers have been known to die on the job from heat exhaustion or commit suicide to escape crippling living conditions and massive debt.

But the recent strife in the Jebel Ali and Sonapour labour camps on the outskirts of this booming city are high-profile here, because they illustrate how dramatically the stakes are changing for more than a million workers, mostly from South Asia, who have long answered the Gulf’s call for low-cost labour.

The labour unrest has also stoked fear among property developers, contractors and government officials of a looming worker shortage that could stunt the region’s economy if migrant workers leave in search of better-paid work and a lower cost of living.

Some companies already complain of a crunch. Steve McConnachie, group general manager for Al Masaood Bergum, a local contracting and manufacturing company, said: “The projects are being delayed more and more because the [human] resources just aren’t as readily available as they were before.”

So far local authorities have managed to contain the strikes. About 4,000 protesters were detained and more than a dozen deported after the protest at Pauling last week. Continuing strikes at the Sonapour camp have, for the most part, remained peaceful.

Nevertheless, workers who have returned to the job say that their battle is far from over.

“We will continue to agitate until our demands are met, or we will go home,” Amir Shezad, an employee of a local contracting company, said. “Why not? It is that simple.”

The prospect of droves of workers making good on that threat could tarnish the Emirates’ economic miracle. A decade of double-digit growth in Dubai ­ fuelled by investors and foreign companies flocking to the tax-free region ­ has relied on a cheap, steady supply of construction workers.

Usually, migrant labourers in the UAE are paid in dirhams, the local currency that is pegged to the dollar. As the value of the dollar falls, workers grow increasingly desperate as the buying power of their wages dwindles.

As inflation in the UAE creeps towards 10 per cent, the workers’ hopes of saving money are dashed. Without a pay rise, the workers say that they can no longer afford to support relatives back home ­ the reason that overwhelmingly draws them here in the first place. The jobs that once seemed lucrative now feel like a waste of time, they say. Many believe that they would be better off to cut their losses and return to India or Pakistan, where the local currency is looking increasingly attractive.

“Everywhere people are talking about the same thing. We want to leave. This is a miserable existence for us,” said Mr Shezad, who shares a small, spartan room with three other Pakistani workers in the Jebel Ali camp. The men, who are paid between 600 dirhams and 800 dirhams (£78 and £104) a month, work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, building some of Dubai’s most impressive and luxurious property developments.

Their employers furnish their food and accommodation, but the workers complain of overcrowding and malnutrition. A typical meal consists of rice and meat of uncertain origin, they say. On their day off, many workers take the bus into town, where they buy food to supplement their diet. Even that trip is becoming expensive.

Many of them are mired in debt when they arrive in the UAE, having borrowed up to a year’s pay from the overseas recruiting agencies that help them to acquire a work visa. The falling dollar and high inflation mean that labourers are forced to work longer to pay off the advance.

Under pressure from human rights groups, the UAE Labour Ministry has introduced laws to protect workers’ rights, although government officials acknowledge that they they do not have nearly enough inspectors to stamp out shady employment practices or implement a minimum wage.

The departure this summer of tens of thousands of illegal foreign workers from the UAE under an amnesty has exacerbated concerns among some contractors of a labour shortage. Although some companies are raising workers’ pay and improving housing conditions in an effort to keep them, the upgrades appear to be falling short for workers at companies such as Pauling.

Mr Khan walked off the job last weekend with about 4,000 other workers who were demanding a 50 per cent pay rise.

Tony Diab, a deputy general manager at Pauling, said that some of his workers had circulated a petition demanding the raise. When their demands were ignored, the workers called for the strike, which ended in clashes with police. Injuries were sustained on both sides.

Mr Diab said that Pauling would not raise workers’ wages, despite the unrest. He blamed the recent strike on a small number of “agitators”, who have since been deported. The company plans to hire dozens of new security guards as frustrations over low wages continue to simmer, he said.

“The guards I have now are not able to control the labourers,” Mr Diab said. “People are back to work, but there is bad security. These troubles aren’t over.”

Dangerous, dirty and poorly paid

  1. Foreigners make up 95 per cent of the workforce in the UAE. As of 2005, there were 2,738,000 migrant workers
  2. Bootlegging is considered a big problem in labour camps, where a bottle of Indian rum sells for more than five times its usual price
  3. Most of the UAE’s migrant labourers are illiterate men from poor South Asian farming villages
  4. Illegal workers often pay “rent” to legal workers to secretly share their labour camp accommodation. The going rate is 3 dirhams a night. As many as 15 men are crammed into one room, sleeping on flimsy bunk beds
  5. Most migrant labourers receive the equivalent of £85 a month for labour on a construction site. The average per capita income in the UAE is £1,000 a month. Food costs about £35 a month, leaving little to send home to relatives or pay off any debts to a recruitment agency. The number of suicides among Indian workers alone rose from 70 in 2004 to 100 last year
  6. Gambling and boxing are the most popular pastimes in labour camps, where rivalries run deep
  7. The UAE estimates that it needs 2,000 inspectors to enforce labour laws. So far the Government has hired 240. According to official figures, 34 workers died on site in 2004 but an investigation by a trade magazine found that 880 migrant construction workers died that year

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.




Home | About | How to Use this Site | Sitemap | Privacy Policy

India Resource Center (IRC) is a project of Global Resistance -- "Building Global Links for Justice"
URL: http://www.IndiaResource.org Email:IndiaResource (AT) igc.org