Dubai’s Labor Ghetto


Almas Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai, February 2007

Although Dubai and its neighboring Gulf emirates have posted economic growth in recent years that would embarrass China, much of it is built on an invisible worker army – predominantly South Asian — whose endless toil is crucial to Dubai's massive boom and who are housed in a slum of astonishing proportions, hidden in the dunes between Dubai and Sarjah.

Without Sonapur, as it is called, Dubai's spas and tax-free splendor likely wouldn't exist. It is a Middle Eastern Soweto of as many as 500,000 foreign laborers, mostly from the impoverished rural villages of the Asian subcontinent.

Sonapur is one of the biggest communities in the United Arab Emirates but it doesn't seem to officially exist. It isn't found on official maps, road signs or even Wikipedia. Its wretched sprawl of filthy dormitories is concealed in the dunes, an anonymous slum hidden from the Dubaians whose apartments its residents built. The best way to find Sonapur is to follow one of the myriad worker buses that shuttle between the many building sites. Some 90 minutes away is a heaving sandswept plain of utilitarian four-story dormitories as far as the eye can see, punctuated by the occasional store selling ghee, naan and curry powders.

Dubai gleams with world-class infrastructure but Sonapur’s roads are gravel and sand with few footpaths. Open sewers are common. There's none of the grass that Dubai's luxury developments specialize in claiming from the desert. The United Arab Emirates is strictly Islamic and Sonapur's few places of worship for Hindus and Buddhists tend to be makeshift.

Dubai's economy expanded by 35 percent in 2006, and about 20 percent last year. It's not oil ‑ that ran out decades ago. Dubai's rags-to-riches miracle relies on an age-old business plan: slave labor in the form of millions of poor Sri Lankans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Africans working up to 80 hour-plus weeks. They have built this gleaming oasis. With their passports seized as insurance, these bonded workers toil in near year-round 45-50 degree heat for about $US8 a day.

It's almost as if Dubai's employers have scanned the latest global wealth survey and zeroed in on the poorest 20 nations to staff their projects. Promised riches but paid salaries well below the OECD poverty line, they have been deployed here by unscrupulous middlemen charitably described as "employment agencies" who wouldn't have been out of place in 1780s Atlanta.

Boosters argue the emirate is correcting the world's economic imbalance. The US was also built on immigrant labor, they note, ignoring the fact that those immigrants to the US could at least become citizens, which is impossible in the UAE.

No country relies more on foreign labor than the emirates, nor are the citizens of any nation more outnumbered by outsiders. Of the nearly 5 million people who officially live in the United Arab Emirates, 80-85 per cent come from somewhere else. The few Emiratis one meets casually in Dubai tend to be airport officials processing passports on the way in, or people boozing in the alcohol-relaxed emirate's many bars. State-owned Emirates Airlines is a formidable competitor among the world’s smaller airlines with Emirates' new planes soon to pull up at the world's biggest airport which is being built on Sonapur’s cheap labor. There is no fear of strikes for higher wages or other unrest. Should that happen, the workers would just be shipped home and replaced by another batch.

There is much that is otherworldly about Dubai, which seems to have taken a mortgage on the term "world's biggest.” Dubai is building the world's biggest hotel, airport, shopping mall, artificial island and marina. There's that bizarre development called "the World,” where the rich and gauche pay US$20 million and more for man-made islands arranged in a strange archipelago mapped like the globe. The indoor ski resort with its own micro-climate particularly appalls environmentalists.

The Burj Dubai is another anything-is-possible phenomenon. Owned, like many things here, by the reclusive royal family, at 600 meters it is the world's tallest building and seems destined to be mankind's first kilometer-high tower. What isn't much mentioned is that the project is riven with industrial strife, where workers ‑ many billeted at Sonapur ‑ have revolted after being denied breaks and even the relief of water from the searing sun, lest they be sacked and sent home, at their own expense. Some workers have died, but you don't much read about that in what passes for the local press.

Emaar, the Burj's royal family-owned developer, refuses to comment.

I visited Akbar at his filthy dormitory in Sonapur. He is a 26-year-old Afghan and has been working on a Dubai construction site since 2003, after he gave $2500 rustled from relatives to a labor broker in Kabul. That got him to Dubai, where he was promised he would make that back in a month, and be able to send money home to his impoverished family.

Akbar says he clears about $10 a day for a six-day week, sharing a putrid room with 10 men who sleep in shifts, alternating rest on five bunk beds and the floor.

Sleep can be difficult. The dorm lights are on 24/7, and shift changes and prayer means there is a constant hubbub of activity; someone cooking or dressing, mobile phones chirruping. The bus station outside his window processes workers for the hour trip each-way to job sites.

In a scalding recent paper called Building Towers, Cheating Workers, Human Rights Watch demanded the emirates "end abusive labor practices", describing working conditions in Dubai as "less than human.” Just 140 labor inspectors monitor 4 million workers.

"In most other places, a worker faced with hazardous working conditions and unpaid wages, in a free market economy that has an extreme shortage of labor, would move to a different job," Human Rights Watch said. "But this is not an option for the migrant construction workers of the UAE, who like all other migrant workers in the country are contracted to work only for a specific employer.

"A worker seeking to move to a different employer is eligible to do so only after working for two years for the present (employer)."

Dubai is also been a big winner from the September 11 attacks. As oil hovers at about $US100 a barrel, Arab petrodollars are speculatively parked here, because their owners sometimes feel discriminated against when they travel to the West. The US remembers that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudi, and the plot was financed with money washed through Dubai.

The emirates' sovereign wealth funds have also emerged as some of the world's most aggressive buyers of prime Western assets in recent years; ports, marquee property and infrastructure.

As the working poor of Sonapur lament, democracy and workers' rights are not high on the national priority list. Not that the untaxed Emiratis seem to much notice, as they count their money and invest in soaring towers of speculation that seem to defy economic gravity as well as nature.

Eric Ellis is South-East Asia Correspondent of Fortune magazine. Another version of this appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Melbourne.