From a distance, Dubai shines like an oasis of modernity in in the desert, with its glass towers and opulent hotels. Beneath the glittering surface, however, lies an underbelly of indentured servitude. The city-state’s brutal labor system was abruptly exposed last month when workers finally threw down their tools to demand fair pay and working conditions.
Thousands of employees at the United Arab Emirates-based construction firm Arabtec went on strike on May 19, calling for wage increases in an unprecedented act of rebellion under a notoriously authoritarian government. According to Reuters, the UAE Labor Ministry announced that it was working closely with Arabtec to suppress the protests. Some 200 protesters were taken into custody in response to the four-day strike, and many were reportedly threatened with deportation or arbitrarily terminated.
The illegal work stoppage was a rare demonstration of outrage by the migrant workers lured by the UAE’s mirage of prosperity.
The Gulf region’s renowned economic growth model runs on the sweat of workers from India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries, who do construction and domestic work in virtually unregulated workplaces without real human-rights or labor protections. The migrant contract laborers in the Emirates and other Gulf States are subjected routinely to exploitation and brutality at the hands of employers. According to Human Rights Watch, labor abuses in the UAE include “unsafe work environments, the withholding of travel documents, and low pay or nonpayment of wages,” as well as physical and sexual violence.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, a global labor coalition that has long criticized the UAE’s labor policies, tells In These Times via email:
The Gulf states are slave states for workers. There is no freedom of association and therefor workers cannot join a union. It is beyond belief that in the 21st century that a nation can believe it is ok to treat migrant workers as less than human. The conditions are extreme with long hours, dreadful heat, poverty wages and shocking mental and at times physical abuse.
With typical monthly earnings of less than $200 — compared to a UAE mean monthly income of nearly $5,000—many Arabtec workers had little to lose by striking. The strike was also a measure of how desperate workers have become in recent years as Dubai’s breakneck construction boom has declined, but not the hopes of masses of migrants who flock to construction sites to earn relatively high wages to remit to their families back home. Many have been taken in by shady labor agencies that load them with heavy debt and false promises.
Syed Khaled, a construction worker from Bangladeshi who says he worked without a raise for nine years and was denied annual leave for three, told Al Jazeera:
We live with five men to a room and 40 or 50 men share a bathroom. There is a big line for the bathroom in mornings before work. The company is very cruel so going on strike is a good idea. I currently earn 8,000 Bangladeshi taka ($102) per month. In Bangladesh for this work I can earn 10,000−15,000 taka ($128- $192) per month, easily, but the work is far from my home and it isn’t steady, maybe work one month and no work for two months.
Mohamed Ashraf, a veteran scaffolding installer also from Bangladesh, recounted in an interview with Al Jazeera that workers had earned paltry wages and been denied food rations. Now, he and other employees had received termination letters following the strike “for no specific reason,” and some coworkers had gotten deportation orders. He doubted the workers would fare better even if they organized because, “If we formed a union and we had a leader, he would take our problems to management and they would just deport the leader.
For years, luxury and oppression have gone hand in hand in the booming Gulf economies. The state-affiliated Abu Dhabi Tourism and Development and Investment Company faced international criticism in 2009 when the Guggenheim Museum and Louvre planned to establish branches on a luxury development site known as Saadiyat Island. A campaign led by artists and human rights activists called on the world-class art institutions demand a commitment from Abu Dhabi authorities to respect international labor standards. Despite promises to strengthen labor regulations on the site, labor groups say the UAE generally continues to enable the systematic abuse of migrants.
“We have offered to work with these [Gulf State] governments if they will commit to rights and major companies are willing to help end the system of enslavement. The silence is deafening,” Burrows says.
While UAE companies rebuff international pressure, industrial action from workers might spur a labor crisis from below, as aggrieved workers feel compelled to take direct action despite the legal risks. According to Rima Kalush, a migrants’ rights advocate with the activist network Mideast Youth, the uprising suggests that despite the crackdown, the strike showed that when facing crisis, migrants could find ways to band together and leverage their collective power:
Both governments and employers (a distinction difficult to make in some cases) feel empowered to subject migrant workers to low wages and poor conditions because they are easily replaceable. But this ‘advantage’ has occasionally been overcome when a large number of migrant workers strike on large-scale project; delays in construction or the provision of services cannot always be tolerated, and in some cases strikes end with some concessions to migrants’ demands. Strikes are really the only form of collective bargaining migrants have at their disposal as they are not allowed to unionize.
From an employers’ perspective, the threat of deportation is an ideal tool for terrorizing workers. Physically removing troublemakers from the country en masse can easily quash a nascent labor movement, particularly for migrants who are already disenfranchised. But the cycle of migration and exile can have a radicalizing effect, as well – as we’ve seen in global campaigns to champion international labor standards for migrant domestic workers and in labor advocacy led by exploited “guest workers” in the U.S. As the human analog to the globalization of capital, migration might expose workers to abuse but might also expand class consciousness, by drawing an ever-widening diaspora into a transnational experience of oppression. Sooner or later, Dubai authorities may realize that for each unruly laborer they kick out, a new migrant enters a workforce that grows more bitter, and more defiant, by the day.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.