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Why the Dubai Strike Matters

11:22 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Dubai's prosperity has been powered by an exploited foreign labor force. (Shwetasarvesh, Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

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:

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Women Unionists of the Arab Spring Battle Two Foes: Sexism and Neoliberalism

8:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

(Public Services International via Facebook)

This year’s World Social Forum, a transnational gathering of social activists, took place in Tunis, a city bubbling with unrest as it struggles to shake off a legacy of authoritarian rule while navigating tensions over women’s rights, labor and nationalism. At the gates of the gathering last week, these faultlines became starkly apparent when a caravan of trade unionists and rights advocates found themselves unexpectedly blockaded. Border police, under official orders, refused entry to a delegation of 96 Algerian activists that included members of the embattled union SNAPAP, known for its militancy and inclusion of women as leaders and front-line protesters.

That feminist-oriented trade unionists figured prominently in the incident is not surprising: In the wake of the Arab Spring, women in labor movements are situated at the crux of two very different, but interrelated battles. At the same time that they are resisting the traditional patriarchal governance of their communities and workplaces, they also push back against the “modernizing” forces of Western-style, pro-corporate neoliberal economic policy, and gradually opening new spaces for social emancipation. By operating within a traditionally male-dominated space, trade unions enable women to assert their agency as activists, simultaneously challenging their general marginalization from the political sphere and the typical Western media portrayal of women as silent victims of culturally ingrained oppression.

In advance of the World Social Forum, women labor activists came together in Tunis on March 23-24 for a leadership conference coordinated by the Public Services International union federation. The event brought women from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait and Palestine, along with fellow unionists from Belgium, Canada and Sweden, to discuss the possibilities and perils wrought by the Arab Spring.

The situation of women trade unionists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) isn’t altogether different from the historical gender-equality struggles within labor movements in Western industrialized nations, in which women were initially marginalized but have incrementally moved up in the union ranks. But women’s labor struggles in MENA are complicated by growing rifts between Islamist and liberal secular political forces that have engulfed the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

In the political movements convulsing the region, gender-justice struggles have often been sidelined or even undermined. In Egypt and Tunisia, the initial wave of pro-democracy protest has yielded to a wave of Islamist-inspired reaction that troubles many leftists and feminists. Though the Arab Spring has scrambled many of MENA’s traditional political alliances, secular leftists and socialists have been increasingly marginalized amid the rise of hardline Islamist factions.

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Qatar Launches Into 2022 World Cup on Backs of Abused Migrants

12:44 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

( / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Qatar sits like an oasis of hypertrophic capitalism amid a landscape barren in all respects except for its oil reserves. The emirate sustains itself by pumping out vast fossil fuel resources while importing human ones, in the form of legions of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal and other Global South countries.

Labor activists say this fierce imbalance between the elite and the laboring underclass is headed for catastrophe as the country prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The event, and the massive infrastructure projects it will involve, will magnify Qatar’s international prestige as an ultra-modern kingdom, but labor and human rights activists say the country is neither ready nor willing to align its regressive labor practices with its ultra-modern development agenda.

An investigation by Equal Times, a publication supported by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), documents patterns of employers and labor agencies cheating workers, deceiving them into exploitative jobs in unsafe and precarious conditions.

As with many other wealthy Gulf countries, Equal Times reports, Qatar’s economy displays stunning inequalities:

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Facing Common Struggles, Domestic Workers Mobilize Across Borders

4:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Caring Across Generations (National Domestic Workers Alliance)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The United States isn’t unique when it comes to political and social crises related to immigration. Migrants in other parts of the world face similar, sometimes much harsher struggles. Even those who are “legal” are often extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. Abuse and enslavement of migrant and domestic workers from Asia and Africa has become epidemic in the Middle East.  In the wake of the suicide of an abused Ethiopian worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, whose story helped galvanize migrant rights campaigns, the issue has moved into the media spotlight lately:

Stories of migrants dying on the job or taking their own lives are not uncommon, underscoring how their lives can be undervalued once they’re swept into a “disposable” household workforce. Migrant women in particular struggle often with abusive employers and sexual harassment. Read the rest of this entry →

U.N. Strike Shows Convergence of Labor and Middle East Politics

1:24 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

In the Kingdom of Jordan, conflict erupted in the Palestinian refugee community, but it’s not the kind of unrest you might expect in a society of survivors of war. The protesters were employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). They launched a strike to press for fairer wages and working conditions, which led to a sit-in at the agency’s Amman headquarters and affected a workforce of about 7,000 that provides health, education and social services to a Palestinian refugee population of about 1.5 million. The dispute was apparently just settled, following “mediation” by the Jordanian government, with a deal for a pay raise of about $70 (USD).

"Welcome," reads the artwork scrawled on the wall outside of an UNRWA girls school at the Jerash Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan. (Photo by Omar Chatriwala via Flickr)

The local press reported earlier that the representatives of UNRWA workers’ councils had issued further demands, including “promotions for teachers, directors and supervisors and the filling of vacancies in all the agency’s sectors, as well as the improvement of UNRWA employees’ work conditions.”

In a way, this was a classic labor conflict between a public agency and workers in a relatively poor country. But UNRWA is a unique international bureaucracy, with a global budget crisis intertwined with the politics of the conflict-ridden regions it serves.

UNRWA in Jordan faced a similar strike over pay rates in 2008. In Gaza last fall, the agency was besieged by calls for a general strike by the Local Staff Union of UNRWA in Gaza City. More than 240 schools in Gaza were affected by protests against the  suspected politically motivated suspension of union head Suhail Al-Hindi. Teachers were among the most vocal protesters:

Hamas sources said the UN agency had accused Hindi of meeting with Hamas political officials.

Buses took some 7,000 teachers employed at UNRWA-run schools to UN headquarters in Gaza city where they held a sit-in, calling for an end to “UNRWA political punishment of employees.”

“Death rather than humiliation” read a banner held by striking teachers. “Deception, lying and hypocrisy have become the core values of UNRWA,” read another.

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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

3:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Revolutionary Socialists (

Cross-posted from In These Times

To commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011, the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo’s railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal…

“We are hungry and we have to feed our children,” said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

“I have to come here every morning and work. I don’t care if there is a strike or civil disobedience,” he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Draws New Battle Lines on Iraq and Iran Oil Fields

3:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image courtesy US Labor Against the War

Cross-posted from In These Times

The Middle East’s two key exports these days seem terribly at odds with each other: oil, the lifeblood of the global economic order, and political unrest, in the form of protest movements rolling across the region. Occasionally, though, oil and dissent can mix, and workers may be channeling a bit of the Arab Spring into the petrol empires of Iraq and Iran.

A few weeks ago, the Federation of Workers Councils Unions of Iraq reported on unrest in the Kurdistan region, involving 174 workers of the Taq Taq Oil Operation Company. The conflict, according to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions site, centers on charges of “a complete lack of equality for Kurdish workers” as well as fundamental abuses at the heart of the oil economy: Read the rest of this entry →

Will the Arab Spring Leave Migrants Out in the Cold?

1:17 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Despite some reform efforts in Arab nations, South Asian migrant workers often suffer brutal abuse. (Image courtesy Bahrain Center for Human Rights)

Cross-posted from In These Times:

The uprisings of the “Arab Spring” have been by turns inspiring, frustrating and tragic for activists around the globe. And they are still horribly incomplete—not just because the emerging revolutions have been in many cases squelched by authoritarian regimes, but because the movements for freedom and justice have left out whole swaths of the affected populations. While citizens push for their rights and have broken into the foreground of the Western media, the throngs of migrants who fuel the regional economy continue to face their own struggles against abuse and impunity, mostly ignored inside and outside their adopted communities.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia executed eight Bangaldeshi migrant workers, convicted of killing of an Egyptian man. After the public beheadings, advocates globally denounced the trial (reportedly based on a violent workplace dispute in 2007) as a sham. Executions are up sharply in Saudi Arabia this year, reports Amnesty International, and 20 of the roughly 58 have involved immigrants.

An Indonesian maid met a similar fate in June, as did a Sudanese man last month (on allegations of witchcraft). The reports suggest that state violence against migrants shares the cruel mechanics of much more public government crackdowns on street demonstrations.

Calling for a moratorium on executions in Saudi Arabia, Amnesty notes that aside from the general barbarity of the practice, migrant defendants have no access to legal counsel or language translation, and “In many cases they are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.”

So is the push for more democratic government in the Arab world going to change the plight of migrants, who in many ways have even fewer rights than citizens? Read the rest of this entry →

As U.N. Debates Palestinian Statehood, Palestinian People Still Ignored

8:33 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

US Palestinian Community Network

Cross-posted from

Depending on which part of the world you occupy, the United Nations is either a well-meaning but inept political body, or a place where humanitarian ideals go to die. Either way, this week’s General Assembly gathering has revealed that the U.N.’s founding principles often ring hollow in the cavernous hall where officials convene to talk about the world’s problems—and do as little as possible to fix them. Still, this year could be a pivot point for one of the most intractable conflicts on the world stage.

In an unprecedented political gambit, the Palestinian Authority has sought full United Nations recognition and membership as a state. The Palestinians are, essentially, trying to use the same mechanism that established Israel back in 1947. Their own statehood bid, which could have not only symbolic but also legal implications for Palestine’s international standing, has support in the majority of the General Assembly.

It is nonetheless dead on arrival, since the U.S., as a member of the Security Council, has vowed to veto the measure if it comes up for a vote. The Obama administration is reportedly working frantically to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to go through with plans to formally submit the request after his speech today. Israel has warned (with both diplomatic and military threats) that approving the bid would fatally disrupt the already moribund “peace process.”

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In a Precarious Revolution, Libya’s Endgame Is Only Beginning

2:26 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Atmosphere in streets - Tripoli (photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Across Tripoli, revolutionaries have perched themselves on a dangerous dream. Author Khaled Darwish reflected in a recent New York Times dispatch from the capital’s battered streets:

I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach. … A few days ago, we were almost killed by one of these snipers who shot at us and then sped off. I found myself prostrate, then crawling until my glasses broke. This is how Colonel Qaddafi wants us to be: crawling. But no more: We have grown wings.

But elsewhere in the city, thousands have been languishing indefinitely in makeshift prisons, captives of a rebel government still grasping to establish control. Masses of dark-skinned people, many of them African migrant workers, have evidently been rounded up on vague suspicions of working as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries. Their bleak captivity, despite their protestations of innocence, suggest that even at a moment of supposed national liberation, some remain trapped in an oppressive past.

The new Libya now straddles these two contrasting scenes, its freedom struggle ruptured by infighting and pressure from foreign forces that have their own designs for the country’s future. Yet viewed from a wide angle, the revolution has cracked open a window for a new political vision, spanning the full spectrum of peril and promise that Libyans have long been denied. Read the rest of this entry →