How Dubai, the playground of businessmen and warlords, is built by Asian wage slaves

Dubai's aim of becoming Middle East's commercial capital comes with hidden costs. Nick Meo reports

Tuesday 01 March 2005 01:00 GMT

Twenty storeys above the streets of Dubai tiny figures of workmen hammer steel into place day and night in the Middle East's biggest construction boom.

Twenty storeys above the streets of Dubai tiny figures of workmen hammer steel into place day and night in the Middle East's biggest construction boom.

Labourers from south Asia man the forest of cranes along the half-built tower blocks south and west of Jumeira Beach, the world's second-biggest building site after Shanghai and a magnet for those hoping to make money by buying property here, ranging from Afghan warlords to the England football team.

The sheikhs who run Dubai plan to make it the commercial capital of the Middle East, so dozens of skyscrapers and thousands of apartment blocks are shooting up. The boom has sucked in an army of workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, unskilled men who toil for years away from families to save £30 a month.

Unlike Dubai's 100,000 pampered British expatriates in air-conditioned luxury, the Asian labourers are banned from the glitzy shopping malls, new golf courses, and smart restaurants.

Instead they squeeze six into a dormitory room, enduring temperatures of 50C in summer and allowed to return home to see their families only once every two years. Accident rates on construction sites are high.

Westerners barely notice them, only perhaps at the end of the working day when queues of exhausted men in filthy blue overalls wait patiently for their buses home to distant work camps on the city outskirts.

Mohammed Iqbal, from Hyderabad in India, has spent 10 years in Dubai and admits it is a tough life. He was laying out paving stones with a work gang along Jumeira Beach. "I miss my family," Mr Iqbal says. "But I can save some money here. I earn 600 dirhams (£90) a month." Out of that, he paid 180 dirhams for food. His one day off a week is spent watching Bollywood DVDs and every spare penny is sent home.

These men have no voice and no rights. Trades unions are banned. Workers have staged protests about their poor conditions before and that draws swift crackdowns by police. "Troublemakers" are rapidly deported.

The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is the biggest, is no democracy and guest workers are expected to do as they are told, and when their usefulness is finished go home with their earnings.

In 2003, when the World Bank met in Dubai, Human Rights Watch appealed to it to argue the case with the UAE government for better treatment of migrant workers. HRW said many workers were exploited, in conditions amounting to forced labour. Many suffer discrimination, exploitation and abuse, a letter to the World Bank president claimed, adding: "Workers are often afraid to demand unpaid wages, protest [against] poor conditions, or seek legal recourse for abuses."

The lobby group said many workers were too afraid of violence to ask for unpaid wages when employers decide not to pay, a common trick reported almost daily in Gulf newspapers, to the indifference of UAE authorities. Women, who come in huge numbers as maids and hotel workers, are at particular risk of violence and sexual assault.

HRW's appeals fell on deaf ears. Apologists for the labour system, including many British companies and expatriates who benefit from a cheap, compliant workforce, say workers have come to Dubai voluntarily.

Most of the Gulf's estimated 10 million foreign workers, mostly unskilled or semi-skilled, with few prospects at home, eventually save enough to buy the plot of land or tiny shop they dream of.

Some do well in Dubai's free-wheeling economy. But the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British. Like their impoverished forefathers, today's Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the UAE. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.

Those who cannot stand the conditions run away. Thousands live in massive slums full of illegal immigrants in the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah. Even those who prosper in Dubai and settle permanently are denied rights although they now make up by far the bulk of the Emirate's population.

A Pakistani mobile phone salesman who has lived in the city for 20 years says foreigners built Dubai yet still have no say in its affairs. "My sons were born here yet they are Pakistani citizens," he says. "If we do something the authorities don't like, we could be sent home tomorrow. Dubai is good for making money. But for people like us it will never be home."

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