While living in Dubai, I enjoyed the luxuries of being surrounded by brand new malls with indoor ski parks, ice skating rinks, and roller coaster rides. However, I also experienced the discomfort of viewing racism, exploitation, and discrimination against Indians, Eastern Asians, and other groups that were part of the labor workforce. While I couldn’t articulate my feelings at the time, seeing the cost these people paid to work in such a country while I had the privilege of living in the same country without having to pay such a high price made me feel grateful yet at the same time guilty.
The issue I have decided to explore is the treatment of workers in Dubai. While Dubai has been praised for building a cosmopolitan city literally overnight, there has been a price to pay. Many Indians and Asians come to Dubai to find jobs, as there is a demand for construction workers and laborers. However, many of them are given low pay as there is no minimum wage in Dubai, and some are forced to work long hours under the heat of the Dubai sun, which rises over 100 degrees. There isn’t a long history to this problem as Dubai is a relatively “new” place, however it has only been recently that the treatment of workers has been brought into questions as outside organizations have expose the harsh conditions of workers in Dubai to the international community, which has brought much criticism. In response to this, the UAE government has been working to improve workers conditions, however it is not clear whether they have done so to help workers or to help clean up their tarnished image.
The topic of workers’ rights and conditions was not discussed in school or my social circle, however at home my family discussed the reality of the situation. This was because it is not seen as appropriate in Arab culture to talk openly about anything that might make someone look or feel bad. Most locals in Dubai seem to ignore the situation, as there is a sense of elitism among them, and many Emirati families work in the government or own major companies, as ownership is concentrated among them. It soon became a topic that was hard to ignore however since I could see the reality of these workers on the streets everyday and soon after the issue became public and made its way to newspapers.
A similar issue to this that we face in the US is Mexican laborer worker’s rights. Many Mexicans (like Asians in the case of Dubai) move to America to get a job and live in a rapidly growing country. Throughout history there have been moments when workers revolt and demand better working conditions and pay, and there have been many cases where workers (especially undocumented ones) feel that they are taken advantage of by the companies they work for. Though this two issues of course are complex in nature and each have unique histories that make them different, it seems that workers rights is not just an issue in Dubai but an issue present all over the world.
In 2006 when the Human Rights Watch published a report titled “Building Towers, Cheating Workers”, detailing the exploitation of construction and other labor workers, the issue became known internationally. This report details the conditions of workers in Dubai as well as addresses the social aspect of the issue, saying that “Over the past two years, the UAE media has focused significant attention on the grievances of construction workers […] however, a general lack of civil society actors (particularly nongovernmental organizations) in the UAE mean that there are no private actors to fill the void of absent government protection and union championing of migrant workers’ rights in the country” (Human Rights Watch 24) .
In response to this report, a 2006 ABC News investigative report was made, stating “Just days after ABC News began asking questions, the government of the U.A.E. announced a series of reforms to improve the conditions of workers. Dubai’s building boom has been made possible by some 500,000 migrant construction workers […] Many work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in extremely hot temperatures that have led to illness and, in some cases, death” (ABC News). The UAE government passed a law that stated workers would not be allowed to work during 12:30pm-4:00pm (the hottest hours of the day) and have stated that they would inspect the condition of campus and workplaces. However, since the formation of unions as well as striking is illegal, most workers cannot voice their opinions of whether their conditions have improved or not. Several companies share the practice of holding onto employee’s passports as a form of “security” that they won’t leave their job, leaving workers powerless and unable to escape from their employers or seek out a new job.
The situation has not seemed to improve much since 2006 as Dubai has not cracked down on violators of their new laws, and in 2008 another US article emerged from NBC News, titled “Dubai’s skyscrapers conceal city’s labor abuse”, retelling the story of the condition of workers in Dubai, detailing their living conditions that the Associated Press found in interviews and visits to labor camps. “Dubai officials were embarrassed by the bad press in a city that advertises itself as a world business hub, playground for the rich and home to major horse races and golf and tennis tournaments. But despite promises of reform, there are still problems” (NBC News). American newspapers and media sources seem to be focused on the lack of freedom workers have, as unions in Western countries allow for workers to make their voices heard. This perspective takes into account values of freedom of speech as well as worker’s rights, the right to minimum wage and the importance of laws and their enforcement. In Dubai, the issue seems to be one of economic interests, as many corporations and companies that are attempting to build multiple buildings and apartment complexes overnight have failed to foresee the exponential growth in Dubai that has led to the pressure to expand the city infrastructure and transportation in a short amount of time.
In response to all the international media responses this issue has got, UAE newspapers have increased articles detailing how they are trying to fix this problem. In 2010, an article published on Emirates 24/7 titled “Dubai court rules to protect workers’ rights,” detailing how courts are cracking down on employers who fail to pay their employee’s salaries, and that compensation will be required if employers fail to pay wages. More recently, a UAE newspaper called “The National” published an online article stating that in 2012 Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed honored the workers on the 7th anniversary of his accession, and tweeted: “This year, we focus on a new group: general labour employees such as gardeners, janitors, construction workers, domestic workers among others, these groups play an active role in society. Some have spent many years doing a great job and they deserve a big ‘thank you’ from all of us” (The National). The article announced that the sheikh would be holding public events to honor labour workers, and even included a statement from a local shopkeeper who said, “I can take care of my wife and four-year-old son, Shym, with the work I am doing in Dubai. Everything is good here – Sheikh Mohammed, the UAE, everything is good.” Whether or not these feelings are sincere or not is unclear, however I think the Dubai ruler honoring workers is a step forward to respecting their work, which will encourage people to value them and treat them respectfully.
1. Human Right’s Watch report “Building Towers, Cheating Workers” (2006)
2. ABC News report/investigation
3. NBC News Report (2008)
4. Dubai court rules to protect workers’ rights, Emirates 24/7 (2010)
5. ‘Honour the workers, not me,’ says Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed, The National