[Imc-beirut] [Dubai] New York Times: Fearful of Restive Foreign Labor, Dubai Eyes Reforms
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Sun Aug 12 04:43:00 UTC 2007
New York Times: Fearful of Restive Foreign Labor, Dubai Eyes Reforms
By Jason DeParle, August 6, 2007
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 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 110 degrees. They
still spend years away from families in India and Pakistan to earn about
$1 an hour. They remain bonded to employers under terms that critics
liken to indentured servitude.
But construction workers, a million strong here and famously mistreated,
have won some humble victories.
After several years of unprecedented labor unrest, the government is
seeking peace with this 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 at all.
The results form a portrait 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 foreigners make up about 85 percent of the population and 99
percent of the private work force. From bankers to barbers, there are
4.5 million foreigners here, compared with 800,000 Emirati citizens,
according to the Ministry of Labor. About two-thirds of the foreigners
are South Asians, including most of the 1.2 million construction workers.
The 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
“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 recent focus on the workers’ conditions still leaves them 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,” Mr. 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.
Mr. 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
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 and Engineering Enterprises, from hiring more workers,
leading it to close its Emirates operation. And it helped workers like
Mr. 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 Mr. Yullah recognized it as something new.
“The company cheated me,” he said. “But the labor office is standing
with the laborers.”
The United Arab 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.
An ethos of tolerance has prevailed, with churches, bars and miniskirts
co-existing with burqas. 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 distant camps, work six days a week at guarded
sites and return by bus with time to do little but eat or sleep. Their
sheer numbers inspire unease. When the film “Syriana” was released here,
the government cut a scene of violent labor protest.
Sonapur, a camp a half-hour’s drive into the desert from Dubai, houses
50,000 workers and feels like an army base. Two- and three-story
concrete-block buildings stretch across the horizon, throngs of South
Asian laborers fill the streets and desert dust fills the air. Even at
midnight the camp roars. Buses ferry workers to third-shift jobs.
Earthmovers work the perimeter, breaking ground for more dorms.
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. In a rare count, Construction Week, a local trade
publication, canvassed foreign embassies and estimated that nearly 900
foreign construction workers died in 2004, though it could not say what
percentage of the deaths were work-related.
The government does not track job-related injuries and deaths, though it
is required by law to do so.
Standing on Sonapur’s sand-blown streets, some workers count their
blessings. “The work here is no problem,” said Dinesh Bihar, 30, whose
$150 salary is four times what he made when he left India.
Some workers 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?’ ”
“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-based
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, the Middle East director for
Human Rights Watch. “It needs to bring up its labor standards.”
Mr. Kaabi, 39, took office in late 2004, with what he describes as a
mandate to do just that, for ethical and practical purposes, a departure
from the Labor Ministry’s earlier focus on processing employer requests
for more foreign hires. “A healthy worker will provide more effective
labor — period,” he said in an interview.
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 the Al Hamed Development and
Construction Company, which was run by a well-connected sheik. After
hundreds of workers blocked traffic in Dubai, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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. Mr. Kaabi said that practice was hard
to police, since it often occurred in the workers’ home countries.
Workers remain tied to specific employers and cannot, without
permission, change jobs. And unions remain off limits. Mr. Kaabi said
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 continue to be press
accounts of worker suicides.
Faced with complaints about low wages and difficult work, Mr. 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,” Mr.
Kaabi said. “They’re building a whole new life for their families.” Some
come from backgrounds so impoverished, he said, “they don’t know how to
use the toilet; they will sit and do it on the ground.”
But Ms. Whitson of Human Rights Watch 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,
an 18-year veteran of labor camp life, was of two minds about the recent
militancy. “People who did strikes were justified to a certain extent,”
At the same time, Mr. Batcha, 40, said 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., Mr. Batcha excused himself. An
alarm would sound in six hours and he was eager for sleep.
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