Posted by: SATYASRINIVAS | March 10, 2008

Migrant workers in Dubai

They still wake before dawn in desert dormitories that pack a dozen men or more to a room. They still pour concrete and tie steel rods in temperatures that top 43 degrees Celsius. They still spend years away from their families in India and Pakistan to earn about $1 an hour. They are still bonded to employers under terms that critics liken to indentured servitude.

In Picture : Emirate businessman with migrant construction workers.

But construction workers, a million strong here and famously mistreated, have gotten the country’s attention.

After a season of unprecedented labor unrest, the government is seeking peace with the army of sweat-stained migrants who make local citizens a minority in their own country and sustain one of the world’s great building booms. Regulators here have enforced midday sun breaks, improved health benefits, upgraded living conditions and cracked down on employers brazen enough to stop paying workers.

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In Picture : Life in Sonapur, the labour camp

The result is a study of halting change in a region synonymous with foreign labor and, for many years, labor abuse.

Many rich countries, including the United States, rely on cheap foreign workers. But no country is as dependent as the United Arab Emirates, where guest workers make up about 85 percent of the population and 99 percent of the private work force.

Labor agitation came as a surprise in this city of glass towers and marble-tiled malls where social harmony is part of the marketing plan and political action can seem all but extinct. But when thousands of migrant construction workers walked off the job last year, blocking traffic and smashing parked cars, it became clear that the nonnatives were restless.

“I’m not saying we don’t have a problem,” said Ali bin Abdulla al-Kaabi, the emirates’ labor minister, who was appointed by the ruling sheiks to upgrade standards and restore stability. “There is a problem. We’re working to fix it.”

Change here is constrained by rival concerns of the sort that shape the prospects of workers worldwide. Like many countries, only more so, the United Arab Emirates needs the foreign laborers but fears their numbers. The changes under way still leave the workers under close watch, segregated from the general population, with no right to unionize and no chance at citizenship.

“We want to protect the minority, which is us,” Kaabi said.

Among those buffeted by recent events is Sami Yullah, a 24-year-old pipe fitter from Pakistan, who arrived four years ago. Like many workers, he paid nearly a year’s salary in illegal recruiter’s fees, despite laws here that require employers to bear all the hiring costs. In exchange, he was promised a job building sewer systems at a monthly salary of about $225, nearly twice what he earned at home.

Yullah found the work harder and more hazardous than he had expected. Two co-workers were killed on the job, he said, and two others injured, when they fell through a manhole. Conditions at the workers’ camp where he lived, rudimentary at best, disintegrated when his employer let the water and electricity lapse. Then a problem even more basic arose: The company stopped paying the workers.

“The owner kept saying, ‘Wait a minute, I will get some money,’ ” said Yullah, who joined about 400 co-workers last year in walking off the job. “He was taking advantage of us.”

In a break with past practice, Kaabi’s Labor Ministry backed the workers. Tapping a company bank guarantee, it restored the camp utilities and paid some of the back wages. It barred the company, Industrial & Engineering Enterprises, from hiring more workers, leading it to close its emirates operation. And it helped workers like Yullah, who is still owed nearly six months’ back pay, find new jobs.

By global standards, punishing a company that does not pay its workers may seem modest, but Yullah recognized it as something new.

“The company cheated me,” he said. “But the labor office is standing with the laborers.”

The emirates is a rags-to-riches story on a nation-state scale. Until the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, there was little here but Bedouins and sand. To extract the oil and build a modern economy, the rulers imported a multinational labor force that quickly outnumbered native Arabs.

From bankers to barbers, foreigners account for about 4.5 million of the country’s 5.3 million residents, according to the Ministry of Labor. About two-thirds of the foreigners are South Asian, including most of the 1.2 million construction workers.

An ethos of tolerance has prevailed, with churches, bars and miniskirts co-existing with burkas. But the construction workers who build hotel rooms that rent for $1,000 a night and malls that sell shoes for $1,000 a pair live segregated lives outside of this prosperous, cosmopolitan world.

They rise before dawn in guarded camps, work six days a week at guarded sites and return by bus with time to do little but eat or sleep. Sonapur, a camp a half-hour’s drive into the desert from Dubai, houses 50,000 workers and feels like an army base.

Building skyscrapers is inherently dangerous, especially in the heat. Until the government recently began insisting on summer sun breaks, one Dubai emergency room alone was reporting thousands of heat exhaustion cases each month.

Still, with salaries often four times and more what they can make back home, some workers count their blessings. Others count their debts.

“I was so eager to come to Dubai, I didn’t ask questions,” said Rajash Manata, who paid placement fees of nearly $3,800, thinking his salary would be six times higher than it is. “I blame myself.”

Some workers simply count the days until they see their families again.

“Three years four months,” said Cipathea Raghu, 37, when asked how long it had been since he had seen his 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. “They’re always saying, ‘Daddy please, come, when will you come?’ ” he said.

“Tension, tension,” he added, pointing to his heart.

Several years of quickening protests, mostly over unpaid wages, peaked in March 2006, when hundreds of workers went on a rampage near the unfinished Burj Dubai, which is being built as the world’s tallest building. Eight months later, Human Rights Watch, a New York advocacy group, accused the emirates of “cheating workers.”

For a country courting tourists and investors and a free trade pact with the United States, the report stung. “If the U.A.E. wants to be a first-class global player, it can’t just do it with gold faucets and Rolls-Royces,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director. “It needs to bring up its labor standards.”

Kaabi, 39, took office in late 2004 with what he describes as a mandate to do just that. He created the summer sun breaks, from 12:30 to 3 p.m. He pledged to increase the number of inspectors to 1,000 from roughly 100, though progress has been slow. And he publicly punished companies caught failing to pay their workers.

The most notable action involved Al Hamed Development & Construction, which was run by a well-connected sheik. After hundreds of workers blocked traffic in Dubai, Kaabi ordered the company to pay nearly $2 million in fines and temporarily froze the company’s ability to hire new workers.

“A beautiful message was sent: Everybody follows the rules,” Kaabi said.

Acting separately, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has strengthened health benefits and subsidized what is meant to be a model labor camp. Still much about the workers’ lives remains unchanged, including the frequent need to pay high recruiting fees. Kaabi said that practice was hard to police, since it often occurred in the workers’ home countries.

Unions remain off-limits. Kaabi said that allowing unions would give foreign labor bosses a chokehold on the economy.

“God forbid something happens between us and India and they say, ‘Please, we want all our Indians to go home,’ ” he said. “Our airports would shut down, our streets, construction. No. I won’t do this.”

In July, the government ended a four-day strike at a gas processing plant by sending in the armed forces.

There are continuing news reports of worker suicides. Faced with complaints about low wages and difficult work, Kaabi repeats a point often made here: Many workers face greater hardships at home for less pay.

“We don’t force people to come to this country,” he said. “They’re building a whole new life for their families.”

But Whitson of the rights group said, “That’s what exploitation is: You take advantage of someone’s desperation.”

Perched bare-chested on his bunk after a day in the sun, Sadiq Batcha, who has spent 18 years in camps for laborers, was of two minds about the recent militancy.

“People who did strikes were justified to a certain extent,” he said.

At the same time, Batcha, 40, said that his monthly salary of $250 was more than twice what he could make back home in an Indian fishing village. He had built a house, given his sister a dowry of $2,500, allowing her to marry, and sent his children to a private, English-speaking school.

“If strikes are made legal, the company will lose money, and eventually we’ll lose our jobs,” he said.

Then with his eyes heavy at 9:30 p.m., Batcha excused himself. An alarm would sound in six hours, and he was eager for sleep.

_______________________________

Source: International Herald Times

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