Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Behind the Glamorous Facade of the Burj Khalifa

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Jan 4 2010

While we are not against progress, innovation and growth, we feel that during all the excitement about the opening of the the Burj Khalifa (formerly known as Burj Dubai), it is forgotten that those who built it, mainly south-Asian migrant workers, have paid a high price for this ambitious project. Those workers toiled 12 hour a day, 6 days a week for pay as little as $4 per day.

The workers continuously protested against the poor working conditions and low pay, despite the fact that strikes and unionizing are illegal according to UAE law. In 2004, thousands of workers protested before the Ministry of Labour, only to be dispersed by police and threatened with mass deportations. Sporadic protests continued in 2005, with the largest labor protest in the history of the UAE in September 2005, when 7,000 workers staged a three-hour protest. In March 2006, 2,500 workers rioted at the Burj Khalifa site, demanding a raise in their pay. In response to this, protesters were once again threatened with mass deportation. In November 2007, workers at the Burj Khalifa site held a strike again, demanding better living conditions and pay.

Those workers are willing to break the law to protest against their conditions because they are, simply put, abysmal. Arabtec, which built the Burj Khalifa/Dubai houses its workers in filthy labor camps. One dweller of the Arabtec labor camp described it this way: "The latrines are so filthy we cannot use them, we are so disgusted. The roads are full of garbage and waterlogged. Living and moving about here is a great problem. We suffer greatly". A BBC investigation came to similar conclusion about the overcrowded labor camps that overflowed with sewage.

A Human Rights Watch report from November 2006 about construction workers in the UAE found that "on average a migrant construction worker earns $175 a month (the average per capita income in the UAE is $2,106 a month)." The report found several abuses that construction workers suffer in the UAE, including "unpaid or extremely low wages, several years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions that result in apparently high rates of death and injury."

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East