State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Case study: Everywhere but invisible - the continued marginalization of Dubai's migrant construction workers

by Derek Verbakel

Dubai's construction boom has tranformed this desert city into a dense urban landscape of skyscrapers, shopping malls, roads and swimming pools. This extraordinary development has been made possible by the labour of many hundreds of thousands of migrant construction workers, who first began arriving in the city in the 1960s and now number around a quarter of its population. Hailing mostly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, they typically work six days a week and 11 or 12 hours each day to earn the equivalent of just US$100-300 every month.

Though a ubiquitous presence on its construction sites, Dubai's migrant workers are largely invisible in the city centre. Largely sequestered in labour camps guarded by private security on the outskirts of the city, migrant construction workers have little choice but to suffer sub-standard living conditions. Settlements such as Sonapur, with some 300,000 inhabitants – the world's largest labour camp – are populated almost exclusively by men, who live in overcrowded rooms in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Each day, workers are bussed from their living quarters to construction sites, then back again. Workplace accidents are not uncommon and deaths tend to go unreported, as safety oversight is lax and conditions are harsh. Relaxation can also be hard to come by, as workers have been accused of harassing tourists and arrested just for resting on public beaches, while shopping malls have frequently turned away migrant workers.

Making possible these conditions is the kafala system. Introduced by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government in 1971, this sponsorship scheme exposes migrant construction workers to systemic abuse in many forms. Under kafala, a migrant's residence and work visas are tied to their sole sponsoring employer. Despite slight reforms in 2010, the ability to switch employers remains severely restricted. Migrant construction workers are often recruited largely in poor, rural areas in their home countries and then obliged to make sizeable down-payments to their prospective employer to cover the cost of their flights and visa. On arrival in Dubai the terms of agreement frequently change, however, with many employers confiscating migrant passports and forcing them to accept lower wages, longer hours and worse work conditions than promised. This can leave many workers without documents and in a limbo of unpaid debt.

Workers are also prohibited from undertaking strikes, collective bargaining or forming associations to advocate for their rights. Strikes are very rare, but in May 2013, striking workers from Dubai's largest construction firm, Arabtec, mobilized in their thousands, resulting in nearly 500 deportations. Reports also emerged in May 2014 of a similar incident that had occurred in October 2013, when more than 3,000 employees of a major UK-based construction company working on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island went on strike to protest over low pay. Some, having stayed in their accommodations at Camp 42 in Dubai's Jebel Ali industrial zone, were handed over to police by company management and subsequently deported. In this context, many migrants have turned to work in the informal economy, rather than reporting abuse and taking their chances with the biased judicial system.

The UAE government has largely failed to address any of these issues and continues to obstruct rights organizations working on behalf of migrant workers from monitoring or documenting these abuses. Nevertheless, a small number of informal civil society groups have had some success in pushing for positive developments and providing social services to those migrants most in need.

These organizations have also aided migrant construction workers in navigating the complex legal issues surrounding visas and supported those accused of 'absconding' or attempting to reclaim withheld wages from employers. They also raise funds to provide transport to hospitals in case of emergencies and plane tickets to return home for those trapped without means. One example is the Indian Workers Resource Centre, a welfare centre for Indians connected to the Embassy of India, which has targeted construction workers with information campaigns on rights, financial issues and health care.

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