“Dubai Media City, please.” I say to the cab driver as the 2007 Toyota Camry drives down Jumeriah Beach Residence (JBR). JBR is in the heart and soul of the Dubai boom. The two dozen or so projects here include some of the most advanced architecture and design in the world.
I ask the cab driver, “how is your day?” Being alone in a big city has forced me to go extra out of my comfort zone in order to share a few words with someone I will only meet once. Today the conversation ends after, “Fine sir.” I know the Pakistani cab driver’s English is limited. Like many, the cab drivers in Dubai are from Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad, and other major cities and villages from Pakistan. On one particular day I remember being picked up from Medinat Jumeriah, a fancy getaway that is swamped with tourists from Europe and Russia. The cab driver introduces himself as Ahmed (for the purpose of confidentiality all names have been changed).
Again, I begin my conversation on the drive back to my apartment, “how is your day?” This time the conversation seems to be manageable.
“It has been a long day sir.”
Ahmed begins to tell me that the police came by and gave every cab driver a ticket for cueing for customers at the resort.
“The police said it was illegal to queue and that I have been penalized.”
This will come from his paycheck along with the other cab drivers. The cab system is very unique to Dubai, from my experience. The government owns everything in Dubai. From cabs, to telecommunications, construction, gasoline, health insurance, and even the major airline company.
Ahmed tells me the story of the way he is treated as a cab driver. Once when he wore sunglasses and a policeman asked him if he was Arab because he “was not allowed to wear sunglasses.” This level of harassment exists, but this story is only unique to Ahmed. This type of treatment certainly diverges from Dubai’s Code of Conduct.
Human Rights Watch has written an extensive report on the exploitation of migrant workers, especially construction workers, in the UAE. This issue should not be taken lightly. What I saw, millions have seen, and few are writing about. Notably Johann Hari who says, “There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other. There are the expats, like Karen; there are the Emiratis, headed by Sheikh Mohammed; and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city…” Stories that he writes about are nonetheless echoed by many of those workers who I had an opportunity to speak with as well. Stories such as workers who have their passport taken away from them and must begin work immediately upon arrival. The population is tightly controlled where individuals only have up to one month after losing their job to leave the country. Yet recently, this has been extended up to six months according to the Minister of Labour.
Rules are also strict. If you ask for a day off, as repeated by some cab drivers, the employer will ask, “Why, as if you have something better to do?” The idea is if you are not here to work then leave. This type of treatment or mentality does not get any better with the recent video of a member of the royal family torturing a man, shoving sand into a mans mouth and beating him with a wooden beam that has a nail protruding from it. At this point, I stop and take a deep breath. I can only imagine the atrocities that have occurred over the past decade from prisoners in Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo.
In my building there was a Nepalese man named Gupal. He shares his story with me. He makes 900 AED (1 USD = 3.67 AED) per month. Yet, 300 AED go for rent, 100 AED for phone bills, and 500 is sent back to his family. I look at him with a smile, “What about food?” I know this could be a simple answer. Maybe he just sends a little less in order to eat, but he gives me a look and shakes his head from left to right.
Of course he doesn’t starve himself, but to my Bangladeshi comrade, who I had an opportunity to befriend over the past few weeks explains, “We have to budget.” My Nepalese friend works 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. At night he shares a room with 3 other guys. Some share a bedroom with 6, 7, or even 8 other people. These are the things that must be fixed in the country and standards must be increased for migrant workers by the government. Rules and regulations must be enforced so companies are not taking advantage of uneducated and unskilled workers.
Dubai is a city that is being flooded by immigrants on work visas. Some stay for a couple years, and return to their country and some stay much longer. The majority of construction workers are from the Indian sub-continent. Cab drivers are Pakistani, restaurant workers and hotel workers are Filipino, and smaller Asian countries such as Bangladeshis and Nepalese men fill the countless other gaps in the working society of Dubai.
The stories shared all have distinct experiences and are unified by one thing: to make more money in order to send it back home to their wives and children. The difficult thing to comprehend, however, is that many of these workers actually pay agencies money to come work in Dubai. Agencies charge unskilled workers 5000-10,000 AED for visas, transportation, and other additional costs that should be assumed as expense for a company rather than placing the burden on the shoulders of migrant workers. Only upon arrival and work do people begin to realize that they will make their money back very slowly
During the economy boom, Ahmed the cab driver told me that on a good day during the peak of Dubai he was making 5000 AED a month, plus government health insurance. Now, with Dubai’s slowing economic boom, he says about 3000 a month. Yet, it goes down from here. With no minimum wage in the UAE, Construction workers make about 600 AED a month, and the man who cleans the bathrooms, gets about 1.50 AED an hour. I can hear the construction workers way before I even get out of bed. I decided to see one day what time work actually begins for many of the Indian expatriates.
The busses of workers begin to roll into the construction sites early in the morning between 5-6 am and work goes long into the night where workers can be on site for 12-14 hours, if not more.
The city has attracted world-class talent and has become the financial and tourist capital of the Middle East as it serves as a hub for Asia, the Gulf, Africa and Europe. As Dubai continues to attract world-class institutions and companies, i.e. Harvard Medical School Dubai , the city will to remain a punching bag for writers from major large established cities. The hands of immigrant workers who were looking for a better opportunity than their home country could have built cities such as New York and Chicago. And what about the Indonesian and Filipino immigrant workers who protest in massive cities such as Hong Kong?
My recommendations repeat what many reports have suggested in that there be accountability on the part of the UAE government as well as companies that are hiring foreign workers to provide the best quality of living possible. There also needs to be strict enforcement of labor laws as well as prohibition of certain companies from working with agencies. In the same way we hold companies accountable for providing the highest standards possible for their employees in developing countries, we must to do in the same in Dubai.
As I fold my cloths, pack my bags and walk out of my 42-story building to hail down a cab for the airport, I take one last look at a city that will surely be different when I come back later on. I stand with my suitcase on the street and know that in economic slow down, I am like a fish surrounded by cab sharks since a trip to the airport will be worth a lot. A cab pulls up and he pops the trunk for me, I throw my bags into it and sit into the back seat. The cab driver turns and I quickly recognize Ahmed when I say, “Airport please.”
| if I knew all the words I would write myself out of here. |