A 24-year old Indian construction worker, Sudahkar Golem, is the face of a Emirates Airlines' latest advertising campaign. 'Meet Sudakar. Meet Dubai', reads the poster, which shows Mr Golem near the top of the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world. The campaign emphasises the good treatment and opportunities that the young man has found as a labourer in Dubai - despite the fact that Dubai construction companies are known for their appalling record on labour relations and human rights.
As Sudakhar, who came to the UAE aged 20, told Emirates inflight magazine Open Skies:
'We have fixed hours, a time for lunch and breaks, and a time to finish work. Working with people from other cultures has taught me a lot. What comes to my mind when I go up the tower is that I’m lucky as so many people want to go up the Burj Dubai, yet I’m here and I can see the whole city. I like the Chicago hotel where I relax with my friends and I like Safa Park and Jumeirah Beach. Deira is very nice as well,”
The aim of the campaign is to showcase the diversity of Dubai, and to celebrate the role that often-overlooked residents have played in the city-state's development. However, the advertisement glosses over the fact that migrant construction workers in the UAE are often subjected to squalid living conditions, underpayment, inadequate safety provisions and extreme cases, deliberate physical abuse.
The Burj Dubai is being built by Arabtec, which was recently investigated in a BBC documentary and found to house workers in unhygenic and overcrowded conditions. BBC journalist Lila Allen was told a very different story from what Emirates would have uss believe by Arabtec employees when she visited their labour camp earlier this year. According to one man, who wished to remain anonymous:
Human rights group Mafi Wasta, who we interviewed last year, claims that there is a culture of 'systematic racial discrimination' in the UAE that is often tantamount to slavery. Construction workers are often bound to their employer by a sponsorship system (also known as the kafala system) which means that they cannot move freely between one job and another, and are tied to their employer even if they subjected to abuse or underpaid. Many are crippled by debts of up to £2000 which they incurred in getting to the UAE, and which they may never be able to pay back, thanks to corrupt recruitment agencies and construction companies.
When the UAE submitted to its Universal Period Review by the United Nations last year, international representatives on the review panel criticized the poor treatment of migrant workers, and called on the UAE to improve conditions and legal provisions for them. However, the UAE rejected all of the suggestions on migrant workers' rights made by members of the UN panel (see full story here)
The Emirates advert featuring the 'lucky' construction labourer is to run in international magazines such as the Financial Times, Newsweek, National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal. The campaign will also be run locally in South Africa, India, and New Zealand, and will reach an estimated 300 million households worldwide, according to Emirates.
This will mean that 300 million households will be exposed to a piece of advertising which gives a dangerously misleading picture of labour conditions in the Gulf. The UAE may be a land of opportunity and diversity for expatriate workers, but it can also be a living hell for them. It is highly disturbing that an international brand like Emirates could use material which is such thinly-veiled propaganda in a series of advertisements, and that respected, high-quality publications like the Financial Times and National Geographic could run them on their pages.