DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The 22 men in "trailer 10" work the morning shift at a construction site, then take turns shopping, cooking and cleaning. They pray together. When one returns to India on leave, he carries family presents and cash for the others.
"We all come from the Punjab" in northern India, said Pavinder Singh, a 42-year-old carpenter from the trailer in a camp that houses about 3,000 workers on the desert outskirts of Dubai. "But what makes us like a family is what we have to endure here together."
Dubai's astonishing building boom, which has made it one of the world's fastest-growing cities, has been fueled by the labor of about 700,000 foreigners — almost all from poor, rural villages in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The workers' meager wages still go far in their native lands. Two or three years in Dubai could mean building a house for their family, buying a plot of land or sending children to school. Yet many men escape poverty back home only to find themselves trapped in near servitude here.
Harsh conditions in Dubai
Human rights groups have for years decried the harsh conditions of foreign laborers in Dubai, along with the rest of the United Arab Emirates and oil-rich gulf. But the problem only drew widespread attention after strikes by thousands of workers this year and last. Some recent protests turned violent — in mid-March, police arrested at least 500 South Asian workers who smashed office windows and set cars ablaze in the small, neighboring emirate of Sharjah.
Dubai officials were embarrassed by the bad press in a city that advertises itself as a world business hub, playground for the rich and home to major horse races and golf and tennis tournaments. But despite promises of reform, there are still problems, the Associated Press found in interviews with government officials and two dozen workers and visits to employer-provided housing:
- Many South Asian workers are essentially indentured servants, borrowing heavily to pay recruitment agents for jobs. They can spend several years paying back debts that can run $3,000 or more with wages ranging from $150 to $300 a month. Lately, the laborers have effectively earned less because of a weakened dollar — to which the Emirati dirham is tied — and Dubai's double-digit inflation.
- They work six days or even six and a half, and 60-hour weeks.
- Employers often confiscate their passports, in violation of Dubai law, and withhold pay for two or three months to stop workers from quitting.
- Many have no medical insurance and work outdoors in summer heat of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) with stifling humidity.
- Employer-provided housing often means bare, crowded trailers surrounded by barbed wire or located on Dubai's desert fringes. Some are not connected to water or sewage grids.
Overall, human rights groups say, unscrupulous employers and government indifference have combined to create one of the worst cases of systematic exploitation in today's world.
No minimum wage
Dubai and Emirati officials dismiss talk of a minimum wage as incompatible with Dubai's market economy. But they insist they have taken steps to ensure regulations are followed at construction sites and living quarters.
"Our role is to make sure that what has been promised is what is actually paid," said Alex Zalami, a senior adviser to the Emirates' Labor Ministry. "The companies want to maximize profits. And what we do is teach them that productivity improves, if conditions improve for workers."
Authorities have since January made companies put workers' wages in bank accounts that can be monitored. Workers for major building companies have been given ATM cards to collect wages on work sites.
But Dubai officials acknowledge they still face several obstacles.
One is persuading construction companies to make changes while maintaining the phenomenal growth of a sector worth about $400 billion in projects this year. Another is a shortage of labor inspectors — there are 400 now, almost twice as many as last year but well short of the target of 2,000. It's also difficult to build new camps with enough space and hygiene because of soaring land prices, officials say.
Workers can sue
Workers can sue in court against employers who miss wages — but it seldom results in payment.
Take the case of Badri Prasad Sharma, a 39-year-old mason from India's state of Rajasthan who has worked in Dubai since 1995. He paid the marriage dowries of five sisters with his Dubai wages, but then began to have trouble with his employers over missed salary payments.
Sharma took his employer to a labor court, which ruled in his favor in November. According to court documents, the Emirati-owned company was ordered to pay him 20,612 dirhams or $5,725 and air fare back to India — far above the 16,000 dirhams $4,444 his lawyer sued for.
But the company appealed the ruling, and now Sharma — his hair unkempt and teeth brown with decay — is surviving on odd jobs and loans while awaiting a ruling on the appeal.
Yet many workers are unwilling to go home and face the shame of returning empty handed.
"I had another image of this place before I came," said Kulwinder Singh, a lanky 23-year-old mason who arrived in Dubai three months ago hoping to save 300,000 rupees about $7,000 for the dowries of two sisters and now lives in trailer 10. "The camp here is worse than anything I have seen back home. It makes me mad to think about this, but there is no other place for me to go."
The 40-by-13-foot (12-by-4-meter) trailer is filled with bunk beds, cooking pots, cardboard boxes of onions, potatoes and cauliflower, and a makeshift shrine with images of a holy man from the Sikh faith and an Indian nationalist hanged by British colonial rulers in 1931.
The two air conditioners are blackened shells that do little against the summer heat. The floor has a large hole, and the men said the roof leaks when it rains. Water, brought into the camp by tankers, runs out frequently.
The men rise before dawn, start work at 7 a.m. and stop at 5:30 p.m. They make a 45-minute bus journey home, wait in line to shower, then cook, eat and go to bed at 11 p.m.
"There is no point in being angry because it will not make things any better," Pavinder Singh, the trailer group's informal leader, said as he lounged on his bed one recent Friday afternoon.
"It's the only ground we have," shouted one player when asked about the rough field.
Belberdhas Devadassan said he was happy to be earning money to someday build a house in southern India. Yet the 23-year-old mason helping build Burj Dubai — already the world's tallest building — lamented he was away from family in his best years.
"But I have to do this.... If I stay home, I will have no future," he said. "I plan to be here for another six years and when I am done, I will have what I need."
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