Dubai: ‘We need slaves to build monuments’

Posted on October 9, 2008

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It is already home to the world’s glitziest buildings, man-made islands and mega-malls – now Dubai plans to build the tallest tower. But behind the dizzying construction boom is an army of migrant labourers lured into a life of squalor and exploitation. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports

o Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
o The Guardian,

The sun is setting and its dying rays cast triangles of light on to the bodies of the Indian workers. Two are washing themselves, scooping water from tubs in a small yard next to the labour camp’s toilets. Others queue for their turn. One man stands stamping his feet in a bucket, turned into a human washing machine. The heat is suffocating and the sandy wind whips our faces. The sprinkles of water from men drying their clothes fall like welcome summer rain.

All around, a city of labour camps stretches out in the middle of the Arabian desert, a jumble of low, concrete barracks, corrugated iron, chicken-mesh walls, barbed wire, scrap metal, empty paint cans, rusted machinery and thousands of men with tired and gloomy faces.

I have left Dubai’s spiralling towers, man-made islands and mega-malls behind and driven through the desert to the outskirts of the neighbouring city of Abu Dhabi. Turn right before the Zaha Hadid bridge, and a few hundred metres takes you to the heart of Mousafah, a ghetto-like neighbourhood of camps hidden away from the eyes of tourists. It is just one of many areas around the Gulf set aside for an army of labourers building the icons of architecture that are mushrooming all over the region.

Behind the showers, in a yard paved with metal sheets, a line of men stands silently in front of grease-blackened pans, preparing their dinner. Sweat rolls down their heads and necks, their soaked shirts stuck to their backs. A heavy smell of spices and body odour fills the air.

Next to a heap of rubbish, a man holds a plate containing his meal: a few chillies, an onion and three tomatoes, to be fried with spices and eaten with a piece of bread.

In a neighbouring camp, a group of Pakistani workers from north and south Waziristan sit exhaustedly sipping tea while one of them cooks outside. In the middle of the cramped room in which 10 men sleep, one worker in a filthy robe sits on the floor grinding garlic and onions with a mortar and pestle while staring into the void.

Hamidullah, a thin Afghan from Maydan, a village on the outskirts of Kabul, tells me: “I spent five years in Iran and one year here, and one year here feels like 10 years. When I left Afghanistan I thought I would be back in a few months, but now I don’t know when I will be back.” Another worker on a bunk bed next to him adds: “He called his home yesterday and they told him that three people from his village were killed in fighting. This is why we are here.”

Hamidullah earns around 450 dirhams (£70) a month as a construction worker.
How is life, I ask.
“What life? We have no life here. We are prisoners. We wake up at five, arrive to work at seven and are back at the camp at nine in the evening, day in and day out.”

Outside in the yard, another man sits on a chair made of salvaged wood, in front of a broken mirror, a plastic sheet wrapped around his neck, while the camp barber trims his thick beard. Despite the air of misery, tonight is a night of celebration. One of the men is back from a two-week break in his home village in Pakistan, bringing with him a big sack of rice, and is cooking pilau rice with meat. Rice is affordable at weekends only: already wretched incomes have been eroded by the weak dollar and rising food prices. “Life is worse now,” one worker told me. “Before, we could get by on 140 dirhams [£22] a month; now we need 320 to 350.”

The dozen or so men sit on newspapers advertising luxury watches, mobile phones and high-rise towers. When three plastic trays arrive, filled with yellowish rice and tiny cubes of meat, each offers the rare shreds of meat to his neighbours.

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 £1,000 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 healthcare 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 (£62) 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.” [more]

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