DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Asian workers angered by low salaries and mistreatment smashed cars and offices in a riot that interrupted construction Wednesday of what is meant to be the world’s tallest skyscraper — including a luxury hotel run by Giorgio Armani.
The violence, which caused an estimated $1 million damage, illustrated the growing unrest among foreign workers who are the linchpin of Dubai’s breathtaking building boom.
Some 2,500 workers on the Burj Dubai tower and surrounding housing developments chased and beat security officers Tuesday night, then broke into offices where they smashed computers and files, witnesses said. They said about two dozen cars and construction machines were wrecked.
When the laborers, who work for the Dubai-based firm Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke, returned to the vast construction site Wednesday, they demanded better pay and employment conditions and refused to return to work. In a sympathy strike, thousands of laborers building a terminal at Dubai International Airport also lay down their tools.
The riot was a rare outbreak of violence, but it was not the first sign of discontent among the foreigners who form the overwhelming majority of private sector workers in most oil-rich Gulf countries. There have been strikes in recent months in Qatar and Oman. In April, Bangladeshis stormed their own embassy in Kuwait, protesting working conditions that human rights activists have denounced as “slave-like.”
Millions of foreign workers have flooded Gulf nations, outweighing the population of citizens in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. In Saudi Arabia, foreign workers make up about 21 percent of the population of more than 26 million, but labor unrest is rare in the tightly controlled country.
Wide range of workers
The foreigners are professionals like doctors, scientists, businessmen and oil workers; skilled laborers such as electricians; or do unskilled jobs in restaurants or homes. Human rights groups have often decried abuse of low-paid foreign workers by their employers — particularly of women in domestic labor.
In the Emirates, where some estimates say more than three-quarters of the population of around 5 million people are foreigners, migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere have provided the low-wage muscle behind one of the world’s great building booms.
Dubai, one of seven emirates making up the country, hosts some 300,000 South Asians working in the construction field alone, helping propel it from a primitive town of 20,000 five decades ago to a gridlocked metropolis of 1.5 million — only 12 percent of whom are citizens.
But workers complain their employers often withhold pay. They enjoy few legal protections and no minimum wage, work in the extreme heat, and many of them live in military-style desert camps.
Angry workers in the Emirates held more than two dozen strikes over unpaid salaries last year, mainly in Dubai. The Labor Ministry responded with a crackdown on companies, helping win back pay and other benefits for some workers.
Labor officials said companies that breach contracts embarrass the image-conscious Emirates by attracting condemnation from the United Nations, the United States and Human Rights Watch.
On Wednesday, crowds of blue-garbed workers milled in the shadow of the gray concrete Burj Dubai, now 36 stories tall, while leaders negotiated with officials from the company and the Ministry of Labor.
An Interior Ministry official who investigates labor issues, Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, said the workers were petitioning Al Naboodah, one of the Emirates’ biggest construction conglomerates, for overtime pay, better medical care and humane treatment by foremen.
“They are asking for small things,” Al Jumairi said. “I promised them I would sit with them until everything is settled.”
Later Wednesday, a spokesman for Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke — a joint venture with the conglomerate — blamed the violence on “misinformation and misunderstanding with some of our work force.”
The spokesman, Mark Way, said in a statement that the “issues have now been addressed and resolved” and the workers were resuming their jobs. He gave no details on how the workers’ complaints were addressed, and workers’ representatives could not be immediately reached for comment.
The unrest marred what otherwise appears to be smooth construction of the Burj Dubai, which is to be a spire-shaped, stainless-steel-skinned tower expected to soar far beyond 100 stories. A section of the tower is to host a 172-room luxury hotel operated by Armani, the Italian fashion designer. The $900 million Burj is due to be completed by 2008.
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