Immigrant workers treated in slave-like conditions in Dubai. And why not? With attitudes like this to be found on the Arabian peninsula, this is hardly surprising. “In the shadows of splendour,” by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in WAToday, October 13 (thanks to JE):
[…] All of these men are part of a huge scam that is helping the construction boom in the Gulf. Like hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, they each paid more than 1000 ($A2559) to employment agents in India and Pakistan. They were promised double the wages they are actually getting, plus plane tickets to visit their families once a year, but none of the men in the room had actually read their contract. Only two of them knew how to read.
“They lied to us,” a worker with a long beard says. “They told us lies to bring us here. Some of us sold their land; others took big loans to come and work here.”
Once they arrive in the United Arab Emirates, migrant workers are treated little better than cattle, with no access to health care and many other basic rights. The company that sponsors them holds on to their passports – and often a month or two of their wages to make sure that they keep working. And for this some will earn just 400 dirhams a month.
A group of construction engineers told me, with no apparent shame, that if a worker becomes too ill to work he will be sent home after a few days. “They are the cheapest commodity here. Steel, concrete, everything is up, but workers are the same.”
As they eat, the men talk more about their lives. “My shift is eight hours and two overtime, but in reality we work 18 hours,” one says. “The supervisors treat us like animals. I don’t know if the owners (of the company) know.”
Another chips in: “There is no war and the police treat us well, but the salary is not good.”
Ahmad, the chef for the night, points to a well-built young man: “That man hasn’t been home for four years. He has no money to pay for the flight.”
A steel worker says he doesn’t know who is supposed to pay for his ticket back home. At the recruiting agency they told him it would be the construction company – but he didn’t get anything in writing.
One experienced worker with spectacles and a prayer cap tells me that things are much better than they used to be. Five years ago, when he first came, the company gave him nothing. There was no air-conditioning in the room and sometimes no electricity. “Now, they give AC to each room and a mattress for each worker.”
Immigrant workers have no right to form unions, but that didn’t stop strikes and riots spreading across the region recently – something unheard of few years ago. Elsewhere in Mousafah, I encounter one of the very few illegal unions, where workers have established an underground insurance scheme, based on the tribal structure back home. “When we come here,” one member of the scheme tells me, “we register with our tribal elders, and when one of us is injured and is sent home, or dies, the elders collect 30 dirhams from each of us and send the money home to his family.”
In a way, the men at Mousafah are the lucky ones. Down in the Deira quarter of old Dubai, where many of the city’s illegal workers live, 20 men are often crammed into one small room.
UN agencies estimate that there are up to 300,000 illegal workers in the emirates.
On another hot evening, hundreds of men congregate in filthy alleyways at the end of a day’s work, sipping tea and sitting on broken chairs. One man rests his back on the handles of his pushcart, silently eating his dinner next to a huge pile of garbage.
In one of the houses, a man is hanging his laundry over the kitchen sink, a reeking smell coming from a nearby toilet. Next door, men lie on the floor. They tell me they are all illegal and they are scared and that I have to leave.
Outside, a fight breaks out between Pakistani workers and Sri Lankans.
The alleyways are dotted with sweatshops, where Indian men stay until late at night, bending over small tables sewing on beads.
A couple of miles away, the slave market becomes more ugly. Outside a glitzy hotel, with a marble and glass facade, dozens of prostitutes congregate according to their ethnic groups: Asians to the right, next to them Africans, and, on the left, blondes from the former Soviet Union. There are some Arab women. Iranians, I am told, are in great demand. They charge much higher prices and are found only in luxury hotels.
Like the rest of the Gulf region, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are being built by expat workers. They are strictly segregated, and a hierarchy worthy of previous centuries prevails.
At the top, floating around in their black or white robes, are the locals with their oil money. Immaculate and pampered, they own everything.
Outside the “free zones”, where the rules are looser, no one can start a business in the UAE without a partner from the emirates, who often does nothing apart from lending his name. No one can get a work permit without a local sponsor.
Under the locals come the Western foreigners, the experts and advisers, making double the salaries they make back home, all tax free. Beneath them are the Arabs – Lebanese and Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians. What unites these groups is a mixture of pretension and racism.
“Unrealistic things happen to your mind when you come here,” a Lebanese woman who frequently visits Dubai tells me as she drives her new black SUV. “Suddenly, you can make $5000 a month. You can get credit so easy, you buy the car of your dreams, you shop and you think it’s a great bargain; when you go to dinner, you go to a hotel . . . nowhere else can you live like this.”
Down at the base of the pyramid are the labourers, waiters, hotel employees and unskilled workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and beyond. They move deferentially around the huge malls, cafes, bars and restaurants, bowing down and calling people sir and madam. In the middle of the day, during the hottest hours, you can see them sleeping in public gardens under trees, or on the marble floors of the Dubai Mosque, on benches or pieces of cardboard on side streets. These are the victims of the racism that is not only flourishing in the UAE but is increasingly being exported to the rest of the Middle East.
Many times I am told that while the immigrant workers are living in appalling conditions, they would be even worse off back home.
“We need slaves,” my friend Ali, an Iraqi engineer, says. “We need slaves to build monuments. Look who built the pyramids – they were slaves.”…