Hell for Migrants: The Dark Side of Dubai

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Apr 7 2009

I urge you all to read this article by British journalist Johann Hari, The Dark Side of Dubai, which deals which contains a heartbreaking description of the conditions enduring by migrant construction workers in the Emirate.

Hari goes where few journalists venture, to a labour camp away from the glitz and glamour that the City State is famed for:

Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.

Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold". In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.

Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

But there may be even worse in store for migant workers as Dubai battles with an ongoing economic crisis:

Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. "We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison."

Hari also chats to Filipinos in Dubai, and discovers the level of exploitation and abuse that many face on a day-to-day basis:

It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.' At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn't interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn't eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I'm powerless."

He also exposes the shocking attitude of Western Expatriates towards migrant workers in Dubai. He questions a wealthy British couple who have been coming to Dubai on holiday for the past 10 years and believe that the place is some kind of paradise (Warning: reading this actually wanted to make me smash something.. you may feel the same):

My patience frayed by all this excess, I find myself snapping: doesn't the omnipresent slave class bother you? I hope they misunderstood me, because the woman replied: "That's what we come for! It's great, you can't do anything for yourself!" Her husband chimes in: "When you go to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only thing they don't do is take it out for you when you have a p***!" And they both fall about laughing.

Hari has done an excellent job in reporting the horrendous conditions that migrant workers have to endure in the Gulf - and the indifference of both Emiratis and expats to the level of suffering that is going on. He has asked some difficult questions that have uncovered some ugly truths about the UAE - and that is more than hundreds of Western journos in the region have ever been prepared to do.

I have often been disappointed by the reluctance of the British media to write about the dire human rights situation of countries such as the UAE, so this article made a refreshing change.

So Johann - congratulation, and thanks, from MRorg. We hope that this excellent piece of reporting will encourage both locals, expats and tourists in Dubai to question the state of affairs there, rather than just blindly accepting the image of the glossy, glamorous, modern city state that we are currently being sold...

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East