Defiance in Dubai

by Shashwat Udit:

Until recently, Dubai seemed like one of the world’s great success stories, replete with gleaming skyscrapers, super luxury hotels, gigantic shopping malls, and artificial islands. Hearing the call of its splendors, workers from South Asia, youth from across the Middle East, and investors the world over poured into Dubai. Even during the boom times, though, not everyone who came to the city enjoyed its indulgences. Some lived in ramshackle housing, worked dangerous jobs under scorching desert sun, and were frequently cheated by employers. During the bubble years, the problems faced by immigrant workers could be ignored. Any attempts to organize resulted in jail or deportation. But the impact of the recent economic crisis cannot be brushed aside so lightly.

When the global financial crisis struck, it became evident that cheap borrowing rather than strong fundamentals had driven Dubai’s growth. Construction projects came to a halt, companies went bankrupt, and the massive state-owned conglomerate Dubai World suspended payments on its debt, sending jitters through the financial system. However, according to Samer Muscati, United Arab Emirates researcher for Human Rights Watch, “those hardest hit by the downturn were the workers.”

Dubai's soaring towers have been built by immigrant laborers, largely from South Asia. (Wikimedia Commons)

During the boom years, human traffickers priced passage to the promised land at thousands of dollars, meaning many workers came to Dubai already heavily indebted. Layoffs left many of them with no means to pay off their debts. Even worse, employers took advantage of the opportunity to cheat workers out of what they were owed. To avoid paying back wages, employers often waited until workers returned home to visit their families to fire them.

The government of the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a constituent emirate, rejects the view that immigrant workers lack protection against exploitation. A U.A.E. government employee speaking anonymously did not deny that private companies had committed abuses, but stressed that the government’s laws and actions showed they were committed to protecting the rights of workers. The official pointed to a new electronic system for paying wages, one that makes cheating on payments impossible. Labor Minister Saqr Go-bash proclaimed the new system “a model worth emulating in boosting the rights of workers.”

Nonetheless, the workers are not waiting for government action. They “barely manage to survive and send money to their families,” one worker told the Associated Press. Despite being required to leave the country when they lose their jobs, many defiantly hold on to their visas. Some stay in the country illegally. Despite being forbidden to form unions, organize, and strike, they have done so. In December, workers held a strike against Robust Contracting, a company that had not paid wages for three months. During the boom years, such an action would have led to jail time or deportation for the strikers. This time the U.A.E. government recognized that it had to investigate the company, not the workers.

Human rights groups welcome the sentiment but retain doubts. Muscati worried that “it’s about the optics.” While well-intentioned laws are on the books, too few inspectors have been appointed to enforce them, and there have been delays and difficulties in setting up the new electronic accounts. Moreover, he readily acknowledged that the problem extends farther than the U.A.E. government. Western institutions and western corporations operating in Dubai, including the Guggenheim and New York University, contract out building projects to developers known to not respect worker’s rights. Migrant workers’ home countries, mainly in South Asia, also gain heavily from remittances, enough to make them turn a blind eye to the trafficking networks that operate within their borders. In the end, “everyone is willing to make a buck off these guys,” as Muscati explained.

The root of the problem is a system that leaves workers at the mercy of their employers. Given such a skewed power dynamic, it is unsurprising that some will be tempted to exploit the helpless. The workers are already rising to challenge this order. In spite of the crisis, a Dubai that still aspires to greatness should help them on their way.

Shashwat Udit ’12 is an Economics major in Silliman College. Contact him at