Dubai: A glittering global city built by poor migrant construction workers

It is the fastest growing global metropolis in the world giving tough competition to the likes of London, New York and Tokyo.


Pinak Pani DattaPinak Pani Datta | Updated: 29-10-2019 11:40 IST | Created: 18-06-2018 19:18 IST
Dubai: A glittering global city built by poor migrant construction workers
85 per cent of Dubai's population are immigrants drawn from dozens of nations around the world. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Country:
  • United Arab Emirates

Zola (name changed) is one among the thousands who travel from Africa to Abu Dhabi on a promise of a job and life that is beyond imagination. He was hired in his home country in Africa for a contract that his skilled job would make him earn £770 a month with good accommodation, medical insurance, and a food allowance.

But as he landed in Abu Dhabi, he faced the harsh reality. He shares a room with 8 other men and often has to wait in line for using the toilet. His day starts at 6 am and he has to work for 11-hour shifts in the hot Arab summer with no medical insurance whatsoever.

"The temperature in this country right now is piercing and we still work. I have family back home but most depend on me for support and that's why I left my job and took the offer in the first place because of the promise of a huge salary," Zola told The Independent.

Dubai is a global city. 85 percent of its population are immigrants drawn from dozens of nations around the world. As Hussain Zaidi brilliantly puts in his book Dongri to Dubai, "There are several lingua francas, each offering its own advantage—English for the Brave New World of Emirate futurism; Urdu/Hindi for those who trade in gold or drive taxis; Arabic for the Master Planners; Russian or Pushtu to buy or sell cars; and Chinese for the times ahead."

Till the end of World War II, the city did not even exist in the world map. But, today it is the fastest growing global metropolis in the world giving tough competition to the likes of London, New York, and Tokyo. Dubai is a small city-state and one of the 7 emirates constituting the United Arab Emirates. Even though ruled by an absolute monarchy of the Al Maktoum family, the city has a flabbergasting GDP of $108.14 billion and per capita income of $28,396.

And this happened overnight, literally!

Dubai used to be a small coastal village in the Persian Gulf. Most of its land used to be barren and the population was very sparse until the British left with all their forces in 1966. Apart from fishing, the other big economic activity used to be the pearling industry. But with the Japanese invention of synthetic cultured pearls, Dubai's only economic activity also diminished.

In the 1950s, oil was discovered in the UAE, which was fully exploited by the natives as the British had to leave soon. In one decade Abu Dhabi started exporting oil. The seven emirates also started collaborating to form a modern state by then. In 1971, the United Arab Emirates was formally established when Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaywayn came together to form a federation. Abu Dhabi's chief Sheikh Zayed Bin-Sultan AL Nuhayaan became the leader of the new country, Abu Dhabi remained its capital.

The United Arab Emirates is not a nation-state. The seven Emirati constituents are ruled by seven families in a feudal administration.

Since Dubai had a very modest income from oil exports, its ruling family the Al Nahyans banked on another industry which would fundamentally change the landscape of the city. They invested heavily in tourism and developed the infrastructure for tourism. Today the Palm Islands and Burj Al Khalifa are standing landmarks of manmade wonders. The Emirates Airlines, with a market valuation of $25.8 Billion is one of the biggest aviation services in the world.

The other aspect of the new state of UAE was that it had no rigid tax system – neither income nor sales. This helped UAE to exploit the strict import laws of Iran and India. Dubai thus became a safe haven in the Middle East to stash all the money – legal and illegal. Gangsters and their dark professions are therefore well represented in Dubai. In fact, internationally notorious Indian origin gangster Dawood Ibrahim was last spotted publicly in a cricket match in Sharjah, Dubai's neighbouring emirate ten miles away. Viktor Bout, renowned as the Merchant of Death in Africa and Central Asia also used to allegedly park his planes in Sharjah while receiving his cheques for services rendered to warring factions through the Standard Chartered Bank branch there.

The location is the most important advantage to UAE in general and Dubai in particular. Being in the Gulf area, it had proximity to the Indian subcontinent, the middle east, Africa as well as Europe. It has become the new Constantinople, the centre of the world. Almost all flights from the west to the east and vice versa have a layover at Dubai today.

The workforce of the city comes mostly from the Indian subcontinent – Indian, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankan, etc. Due to a demand for rapid development, it has been alleged that these migrant construction workers and labour forces are often kept in inhumane conditions. Vice news published a documentary called Slaves of Dubai in 2012 which for the first time unearthed the phenomena of modern day slavery.

It is alleged that poor labour forces are picked up from overpopulated regions like Bangladesh and India and brought to Dubai. Once they reach, their passports are taken away and they are made to live in camps which would put Nazi concentration camps to shame. In hot summer conditions of Arab where the temperature reaches as high as 50 degrees Celsius, 20 people are made to sleep in one room. The toilets often run out of the water and there is no proper sanitation as well. Such construction labourers often earn as little as AED 700 (£127) a month.

The other class of workers who are more marginalized is the numerous Asian and African women working as domestic workers who have reportedly been overworked, beaten or sexually abused by their employers but are often trapped in slave-like conditions because they are excluded from the country's labour law protections.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that the migrant workers' residency is tied to their employers through a sponsorship system that prevents them from changing jobs and opens them to charges if they run away. It cited passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, long hours of work, forced confinement, food deprivation and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

The UAE government has not overlooked the matter altogether. According to reports, the Dubai Standing Committee of Labour Affairs said that only 1 percent of labourers housing facilities are in poor conditions. Major General Obaid Muhair Bin Surour, head of the committee, said that policies and efforts made by the committee since its inception in 2011 have enhanced the UAE's reputation in international forums in terms of labour rights.

He also pointed out that the state register for the protection of workers' rights and humanitarian work was praised by the UN Human Rights Council, International Labour Organisation, and the UN secretary-general. He further expressed his appreciation for companies cooperating closely with the committee to improve labour accommodations. He pointed out that some companies have excellent housing quarters that include swimming pools, sports facilities and health centres with clean sleeping facilities all year round.

There have been efforts from citizens as well. Like Prakarti Lakwani, an Indian national who founded the "Shukran Workers" (Thank You, Workers) whose volunteers regularly set up cinema nights for domestic workers. Future plans include adopting labour camps, offering dental check-ups and treatment to workers. Prakarti also wants to see workers upskill – learning to drive and improving their English, so one day they might not be workers anymore.

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