Misery behind Dubai's steel forest

Behind the forests of glass-tinted tower buildings in the desert of Dubai, low-paid Asian workers live like slaves.

india Updated: May 02, 2006 14:40 IST

Forests of glass-tinted tower buildings mushroom out of the desert in Dubai, whose colossal wealth is fuelling one of the world's largest construction booms. But the low-paid Asian workers suffer behind the abundance.

In order to shape the city's ambitious economic vision, armies of Asian construction workers live and work in conditions that have been criticised by international human rights organisations as being tantamount to slavery.

Most unskilled workers in the UAE come from India, Pakistan and China.

Stories of poor workers sent back to their home countries without pay after years of toiling in the Gulf have been rife for years in Dubai and elsewhere in the region.

Labourers who do get paid have long complained about low salaries, mistreatment and poor living conditions.

But for the past year such grievances have turned into strikes, some of them violent.

More than 2,000 construction workers from the Al Ahmadiyah Contracting and Trade Company here went on a rampage last week, smashing company equipment, buses and machinery.

They wanted better wages, better living conditions and the right to cook their own meals instead of receiving ready-made meals from caterers which they said were not hygienic.

A worker who did not want to be named said authorities took 76 of his co-workers into custody for taking part in the protest.

The worker said neither the company nor the authorities have said where the men have been taken, suggesting they could be in jail or might have been deported.

A company official told local newspapers that the men had been "incited" to violence and threatened to replace anyone who failed to return to work.

The source said most of the workers had returned to work Saturday to their construction site in the luxurious Dubai Marina.

United Arab Emirates (UAE) Labour Minister Ali Bin Abdullah Al Kaabi said worker protests have taken a dangerous turn and that the UAE will deport any worker who violates the law.

He blamed the unrest on an organised section of workers who were deliberately provoking fellow workers to protest.

After years of censorship, local newspapers have become bolder in highlighting the plight of workers.

Dubai's Gulf News warned authorities Saturday that workers had legitimate grievances that should not be swept under the carpet.

"There are many people - officials and media alike - apparently in denial that the strikes are spontaneous and motivated by a desire to achieve better working conditions and pay," the paper said.

Unskilled workers in the UAE, where Dubai is one of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the oil-rich country, receive $109 and $178 a month.

Under the law, they should work eight hours a day, with maximum two hours overtime. But many workers complain they are forced to work up to 14 hours daily.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch, an independent New York-based watchdog, said that the UAE government should take immediate steps to end the abusive practices that have helped spark recent unrest by migrant workers in Dubai.

The report followed violent demonstrations last month at the construction site of Burj Dubai, which will be the world's tallest building when completed in 2008.

Construction on the landmark project was interrupted after some 2,500 Asian workers smashed cars and offices, causing damage of nearly one million dollars.

Labourers working on a Dubai Airport expansion project also stopped work following the rampage.

"One of the world's largest construction booms is feeding off of workers in Dubai, but they're treated not as human beings," said the Human Rights Watch report. They are denied rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Migrant workers comprise nearly 90 per cent of the workforce in the private sector in the UAE.

The UAE said a new labour law and other measures were improving the lot of immigrant workers, but newspapers are filled every day with reports about the plight of workers, some of whom resort to suicide to escape lives of misery and debt.

Human Rights Watch, quoting local media, said that as many as 880 deaths occurred at construction sites in 2004.

Al Kaabi said authorities were in the process of drafting a law that would allow labourers to form trade unions and pursue collective bargaining, both of which are currently illegal for construction workers.

In an effort to improve the living conditions of the hundreds of thousands of workers' housed in squalid labour camps across the UAE, the government said it aims to build modern residential cities.

Earlier this week, one project was launched in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, to provide accommodation, healthcare facilities, shopping amenities, smart card security, waste disposal, pest control and 24-hour visa facilities to firms based in the Abu Dhabi Industrial Zone.

This "is our first project, we want to improve the lives of all workers in the UAE and so we shall be building similar cities across the Emirates", said Al Kaabi.

First Published: May 02, 2006 11:11 IST