June 2, 2010
Having spent two years in Dubai, it’s hard to disagree with George Fullerton, a Pakistan-based British journalist. Dubai in two words: Instant gratification. It’s a place for people who opt for life in the fast lane: fast cars, fast women and fast food. It may be a paradise built in glass for hedonists but the plastic city irrefutably remains a moral failure.
“It has imported all the worst aspects of western culture (excessive consumption, environmental defilement) without importing any of its benefits (democracy, art),” Fullerton said. “Slack jawed zombies roam around consuming food, clothes and electronics in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness of their existence.
“Whilst at the Mall of the Emirates the azan goes off, nobody appears to move to the prayer room; everyone’s too busy performing sajda before Stella McCartney, genuflecting before Gucci, and prostrating themselves at Prada … The upwardly mobile South Asian man prances around wearing a silly shirt with a large picture of a polo player on a horse, whilst their women wear oversized sunglasses and carry oversized handbags. And the Arabs walk about with enough gold bling to blind you at ten paces.”
As someone familiar with the streets of Dubai, both as a resident and a visitor, I can aver Fullerton’s observation of the plastic city.
My last visit was a couple of years ago, but after reading his recent column, “At least we are not Dubai,” it seems much in the city remains the same, less the economy which depends on cheap, foreign labor.
More than 70 percent of Dubai’s population consists of expatriates. The city may have succeeded to create the world’s most glamorous buildings; including the world’s first seven-star hotel and an artificial ski-slope but the construction industry itself is anything but charming.
Tourists remain largely oblivious to the predicament of the immigrant workers responsible for turning the desert state into a busy metropolis. Says Eric Ellis, a correspondent for Fortune magazine:
“The Burj Dubai is another anything-is-possible phenomenon. Owned, like many things here, by the reclusive royal family, at 600 metres it’s already the world’s tallest building and seems destined to be mankind’s first kilometre-high tower. What isn’t much mentioned is that the building is riven with industrial strife, where workers — many billeted at Sonapur — have revolted after being denied breaks and even water, lest they be sacked and sent home, at their expense. Some have died, statistics you don’t much read about in the local press.”
During my last trip to Dubai in 2008, I was able to spend a few hours in Sonapur camp, located on the outskirts of the city, far away from the five-star resorts and the average tourist eye, and the conditions were appalling. This camp is home to about 500,000 immigrants, who left their homes for a better future.
Sonapur cannot be found on an official map, in fact, most Dubaians do not even know where it is located, but it’s is one of the largest communities of Dubai. The camp is strikingly different from the rest of the city, the city that has been developed on the endless labor of the dwellers of Sonapur. Its roads are mostly gravel and sand, open sewers are visible, and women are not allowed. Dodging security guards, I was able to visit a few dormitories sprawled across the barren land and briefly speak with the laborers.
Up to 12 workers share a room furnished with bunk beds designed for two persons. All their belongings are stored above or below their beds as there is no other storage space. At meal times there is not enough room for them all to dine together, on the floor, so they take turns; four at a time. A meal consists typically of chilies, onions, tomatoes and bread.
They have a common kitchen where they do their own cooking in soiled pans, not even leaving enough room for them to be able to have their meals together at one time. They toil under the scorching sun and high humidity, which are characteristic of the desert state most of the year.
The construction buzz is inescapable, pervading all parts of the city. You see the workers covering their heads with cloth and many say they have to take salt tablets in order to prevent dehydration.
“In the heat, it is very, very tough to work. Some people faint,” said a worker from Pakistan.
Another man from Nepal said, “I paid 5,000 dirhams to come here. The agent promised good facilities and good work but he lied.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the workers say that their passports, with no exceptions, are taken away by agencies as soon as they arrive and they cannot leave even if they want to.
Moreover, it is illegal for immigrant workers to go on a strike. They said that they are usually paid on time but the salaries they receive only suffice to send back home. Most of them work more than eight hours a day, six days a week.
Some workers reported not being paid for months at a stretch. Cases of suicide by unpaid workers who are the sole breadwinners of their families back home have also been reported.
“Ranver hasn’t been paid in nine months by his construction firm, but the Indian worker fears he could be deported if he complains to Dubai authorities as he also works illegally on the side,” an article published in the Daily Times by a Pakistani reporter says. “His plight is shared by many of the tens of thousands of labourers, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, lured by promises of jobs in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.”
Ellis goes further to say:“Millions of impoverished Sri Lankans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Africans, working up to 80-hour-plus weeks, have built this gleaming oasis. With their passports seized as insurance, these bonded workers toil for about $US8 ($A9) a day. It is almost as if Dubai’s employers have scanned the world and zeroed in on the poorest 20 nations to staff their projects. Promised riches but paid salaries well below the poverty line, they’ve been found jobs by unscrupulous middlemen charitably described as “employment agencies” who wouldn’t have been out of place in 1780s Atlanta.”