Dark side of Dubai’s Economic Boom Exacts Harsh Human Toll
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
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
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
“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
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,
“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
- Foreigners make up 95 per cent of the workforce in the UAE.
As of 2005, there were 2,738,000 migrant workers
- Bootlegging is considered a big problem in labour camps, where
a bottle of Indian rum sells for more than five times its usual
- Most of the UAE’s migrant labourers are illiterate men from
poor South Asian farming villages
- 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
- 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
- Gambling and boxing are the most popular pastimes in labour
camps, where rivalries run deep
- 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
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