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: