Exploited Asian workers sweat amid Dubai boom

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2007, 12:00am

Where just a few years ago there was nothing but desert, now glittering skyscrapers, theme parks, half-built sports stadiums and manicured golf courses stretch for kilometres south of old Dubai.

Under construction is the tallest tower in the world, the latest addition to a growing list of wonders; the biggest shopping mall anywhere, a huge indoor ski slope, a 321-metre tall hotel on Jumeira Beach shaped like the sail of a dhow, and an artificial island development called The Palm laid out like the fronds of a palm tree jutting into the waters of the Gulf.

When The Palm is finished it will have 30 five-star hotels, shopping complexes and marinas. Thousands of Britons have bought luxury apartments there, some of the 100,000 British expatriates drawn to Dubai's tax-free lifestyle of Arabian sunshine, soaring property prices and air-conditioned luxury.

On the other side of the Emirate, to the north past a forest of cranes and kilometres of scruffy building sites, live a less fortunate group of foreigners: the Asian labourers who have also come seeking their fortunes in the world's fastest-paced construction boom.

The sprawling, heat-blistered labour camp of Sonapar is a squalid home to some of the half million construction workers whose muscle has transformed Dubai from Gulf backwater to contender for economic capital of the Middle East.

They come with the modest dream of earning enough for a plot of land or a little shop in their villages in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh and most take out high-interest loans to pay the agents who arrange their work visas. But when they arrive many find themselves cheated by the recruiters and easy prey for unscrupulous construction companies who pay as little as possible. Employers confiscate their passports on arrival so they can't switch to better-paid work.

Most sleep eight or more crammed into dormitory rooms and few save more than 500 dirhams (HK$1,064) a month, typically spending at least four years working in Dubai before they have a chance to return home to see their families.

C.P. Mathew, an Indian businessman who has helped hundreds of destitute labourers, said: 'Every day there is a case where recruiting agents cheat workers. Most of them are illiterate villagers and are vulnerable.

'Injured or sick workers are dumped in hospitals by employers and we have to help them get home. And the suicide rate is high. I believe more than 100 killed themselves last year.'

Dubai's construction bosses may be starting to privately worry about the quiescent labour force which has long been taken for granted. The past two years have seen dozens of strikes and even riots by workers, accidents including a high-rise blaze where workers fell to their deaths on live TV and grumbling from some Asian consulates about the treatment of their nationals.

The Ministry of Labour has promised to change laws and legalise trade unions this year, although it is already behind its own schedule and it is not yet clear what changes will be made.

One has already been introduced. Last year a law was introduced forbidding work during the hottest hours of the afternoon in summer because exhausted, dehydrated workers were falling to their deaths from tall buildings.

Human Rights Watch has said the proposed reforms will still violate international standards because workers will be prohibited from bargaining collectively and it will still be legal to deport strikers.

Said Afzal from Mumbai said he had been promised 850 dirhams a month for a job as a crane driver before he arrived six months ago but has instead been paid only 450.

'I went to a labour court but they didn't listen to me. Conditions are very bad here. Indian workers are treated like rubbish.

'I'm going home to India. The economy is good there now. I don't have to put up with this.'


While the United Arab Emirates has a resident population of 4,100,000, migrant workers and their families account for 80%

Human Rights Watch