21st Century Slavery in the UAE

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The Burj Khalifa rises 2,722 feet from the desert ground, piercing the hazy sand and dust filled skies that envelop the Dubai cityscape for much of the year. Considering the arid land and unrelenting heat of the Middle East, it is a wonder that this structure exists. With 163 floors, 57 elevators, 2,909 stairs and 24,348 gleaming windows, it is a feat of engineering and a merit to the ingenuity of the human race. It is also, of course, a symbol and constant reminder of the power and wealth of this oil-rich city-state and, more widely, the federation of the United Arab Emirates as a whole. It is the brightest and brashest jewel of the Middle East, which shines unto the rest of the world as a proud testament to the wealth of the Emirati’s. Yet, there is a story to this building that is not so bright…

This stupendous  structure was built, perhaps predictably, not by the 350,000 or so Emiratis, but a huge workforce of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Philipinos. Hundreds of thousands of them were flown over from their home nations to build the skyscrapers, man-made islands, indoor ski-slope (one of the largest in the world) and many other  disgusting trophies of wealth. In the whole of the UAE there are around 4.5 million foreigners, and 1.2 million construction workers alone, most of who hail from South East Asia. [1] However, from a cursory reading of these people’s experiences it fast becomes clear  that ‘worker’ is really the wrong term to use – these people are 21st century slaves.

For many years it has been boom-time in the UAE, and with this hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn to the UAE from their poverty stricken nations to find work. Most leave under the pretence that they will be able to work for a couple of years, send money back, and then will be able to return to their countries of origins and be reunited with their families. The reality is a little more complicated and unforgiving. On arrival, after the customary confiscation of their passports, most will find themselves working gruelling 12 hour days, 6 days a week. In a week the average worker will probably work 70+ hours and for that will earn as little as £120 a month. [2] Most of this will be sent home to support their families. The pitiful amount left will be used perhaps to buy a little extra food. These, largely illegal, immigrant workers are housed in labour camps outside the cities, sleeping in dorms of up to 20 men, from where they are bussed in and out of the cities. [3]

With such a small wage it is almost impossible for workers to escape once there. In having to pay back their visas, what was predicted to be three years of work can quickly become seven, but even then, without their passport, it is not hard for the contractors to stop them leaving. There are of course no workers unions and thus little in the way of workers rights. It is, for instance, illegal to strike. [4] What the contractors and bosses say, the workers do.

It reads like a 21st century, Middle Eastern version of the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ – workers just a mistake away from starvation, struggling to survive in depraved working conditions, in fear of their ruthless, ever-watching superiors. These workers seemingly have nowhere to turn; no way out. Dissent, and they will surely loose their jobs. Keep calm and carry on, and they are rewarded by being provided with just  enough to buy the basic necessities needed for them to exist and clock in and out each day. The only other option perhaps is to work one’s way out – onwards and upwards? This is out of the question. There is no ladder to climb except the ones they scurry up and down all day, carrying building materials and tools. The workers have no chance of reaching the glass ceiling, yet alone breaking it. It is perhaps not surprising then that at least two Indian workers in Dubai alone commit suicide every week [5]; jumping from their work-stations high in the dusty sky or running into the traffic on the Sheikh Zayed Road that runs through the heart of Dubai. One man even jumped from the 147th floor of the Burj Khalifa, falling 39 floors before he hit an over-hang on the 108th floor. The reason that has been given for his action: an employment dispute. [6] In all likelihood, there will be more.

In the last few years there have been some attempts to improve the situation of the migrant workers, by and large from European companies, who have tried to bring in something in the way of workers rights. One major complaint levied at companies, following reports of a number of faintings and at least one reported death, had been in relation to the heat, which the workers are forced to work in. Resultantly, in the UAE new rules have been put in that mean the workers have a right to rest for two hours from 12 to 2pm – the hottest part of the day. [7] Yet, conditions are still atrocious and malpractice still continues. An example of the malpractice and general unpleasantness was recently relayed to me from a close relative  who has worked in the hotel trade in Dubai for two years. I was told how it is now illegal for contractors to expect their employees to work when the temperature reaches over 50 degrees. In the hottest part of the year, when it can exceed 50 degrees, the news channels strangely report a temperature of 49.9 degrees. Yet, as I was told, if one ventures outside and looks at the temperature on their phone, the temperature often pushes 52 degrees.

Furthermore, a 2010 Human Rights Watch report described some of the hardships for women workers. This includes: unpaid wages, food deprivation, and physical or sexual abuse. It notes that the Indonesian embassy reported a 24% increase in incidences of worker exploitation in Abu Dhabi between 2008 and 2009. [8]

However, it is not just the working conditions that are bad, it is the whole culture that is sick. This relative of mine put it bluntly: ‘The Emiratis are racist’. Be it builders, cooks, nannies, maids, the migrant workers are looked down upon. You may for instance see the Emirati’s socialising or talking to some of the many Western’s who are also drawn to the UAE for work, but you would never see an Emirati talking to an Indian, a Pakistani or a Kenyan – unless that is to shout an order or request something that is needed. They are not the right race, let alone the right class. Yet, these workers vastly outnumber their Emirati masters by over a million people, in a social structure reminiscent of Plato’s Republic in which a small, rich elite citizenry have their every needs served by an supply of slaves. The same is true today. It is a life the Emiratis have come to expect.

We often think of slavery as being a thing of the past. It conjures up images of the American slave trade. The migrant workers of the UAE (and possibly other oil-rich Middle Eastern nations too) equates to a modern day slave trade. These people are coerced, controlled, and tormented by a hellish work regime until they invariably break. Any control they might have once had disappears. Yet, like the old-slave trade there is something that can be done. We can pressure these foreign companies and lobby our government to place economic and diplomatic pressure, such as trade embargoes, on these places. It may mean losing a ‘friend’ or ally in the Middle East, but in saving countless lives, and standing up for the rights of some of our fellow beings, I’d argue that there is much more to be gained.

If you want to take a stand, you can start by signing this petition by clicking here.

Article by George Richards. Edited by Hannah Finney.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/06/world/middleeast/06dubai.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7985361.stm

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/gallery/2008/oct/08/1#/?picture=338366535&index=13

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4249223.stm

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/27/dubai-migrant-worker-deaths

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/10/burj-khalifa-suicide-dubai-tallest-building_n_859897.html

[7] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9otQDvlhtZo

[8] http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-united-arab-emirates

  • http://www.chairmandavey.wordpress.com David

    A really good article, but the only part I took issue with is;

    “in a social structure reminiscent of Plato’s Republic in which a small, rich elite citizenry have their every needs served by an supply of slaves”

    I don’t quite think that was Plato was getting at in his philosopher-king theory.

    It would be nice to see a follow up article with solutions too.

  • George

    Hi David, thanks for the comment.

    Ah, apologies, yes my allusion to Plato is not quite correct and a little confusing. What I meant to say was that it is reminiscent of Athenian Democracy, in which there was a small, rich, powerful equal citizenry, who were served by a huge slave population.

    Thanks for pointing out my error. I will rectify it.

    Although, on a side point, slaves were very important to the philosophical thoughts of Plato. For instance, in his ‘Laws’.

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