Dubai Labor Fighting Back Vs. Indentured Globalization
— Vicky Francis
OCTOBER, 2007 SAW the government of the United Arab Emirates halfway through a “humane” immigration amnesty which, in turn, paved the way for a clampdown on labor. In November a huge strike wave erupted, culminating in pitched battles between militant laborers and Dubai police.
December 1 was the date marking UAE National Day: 36 years since the founding of this federation based on seven insignificant Arab territories. The anniversary was used to spread a message of development and prosperity, taking every opportunity to promise increased democracy further down the line. Behind the message of unity on National Day, it was also clear that the five minor Emirates — i.e. those other than Dubai and Abu Dhabi — have some way to go before they can compete with their prosperous neighbors.
For international commentators, the Emirate of Dubai especially makes for confusion. On the one hand, compared to such neighbors as Iran, Iraq and Yemen, it seems to be an oasis of tranquillity in the midst of a turbulent region. Its rapid development, especially in the real estate and tourism, means that Dubai is often presented as offering an alternative to religious fundamentalism and war.
Simultaneously, Dubai’s social authoritarianism and its emphasis on exclusive residential projects and conspicuous consumption, coupled with an energy-devouring infrastructure, all make it out of step with contemporary notions of both hedonistic tourism and “sustainable development.”
First impressions of the UAE are unlikely to clarify matters. Witness the speed with which a labor amnesty was used to increase government control over the workforce. When push came to shove, following a strike by over 4000 construction workers, the authorities retaliated with arrests and deportations.
In public, Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan backed down from earlier Ministry of Labour threats to deport all the strikers, instead focusing on detaining 800 in order to weed out the 150 or so “vandals,” i.e. organizers. Eventually some 4200 laborers returned to work, with promises of an official investigation into their complaints.
Striking in Dubai is illegal, so when industrial action does occur, it tends to be a response to working conditions that lead to absolute poverty. A typical flashpoint is when workers go months without getting paid, often thanks to subcontracting companies working on Dubai’s prestige projects. The master developer pleads ignorance while the company behind the mass hiring of predominantly Indian laborers goes out of business, sometimes vanishing overnight.
Subcontractors also enjoy superprofits based on fixed contracts, locking in workers to rates of pay established up to 20 years ago. They levy exorbitant rents for the most basic slum laborers’ housing, consisting mainly of Portacabins split into dormitories. Many labor camp operators will deduct fees from wages to cover spurious recruitment costs. As the sliding dollar drags down the UAE currency, the dirham, migrant workers also find it harder to send their paltry incomes back home.
To end Dubai’s miserable record of exploitation, strikes are a step in the right direction. Gross wages for construction workers are somewhere in the region of $100 to $160 a month, based on the rates publicized by prestigious Joint stock companies such as Nakheel and Emaar. Once deductions from legal workers’ wages and the lower cash-in-hand rates paid to casual laborers are taken into account, it is apparent that an $8 daily rate is an optimistic assessment of what people earn.
Workers As Hostages
On arrival at a new job, the employee usually surrenders his or her passport to the employer or agent. To move from one job to another, the employee must obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from the former boss.
Whether maids or junior managers, this system is little more than organized hostage taking — even if the law is modified. Part of the explanation for why Dubai is booming is that the state regulates the labor market so as to maximise exploitation.
Take Ricardo (not his real name) as a case in point. Working in a local electronics store — the retail trade is overwhelming Filipino — he was making approximately $7 a day, most of which was sent back home. The links between the peso and the dollar meant that the income he sent home was just about holding its value.
Disaster struck when a colleague was alleged to have sold DVDs to friends for less than the price. Although Ricardo worked a different shift, he was accused of colluding in this practice, leading to his firing and subsequent deportation. The employer, backed by an Emirati sponsor, held his passport and with no union to back him, Ricardo stood little chance of keeping his job.
Defenders of the regime will argue that workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines are set to earn more than they would back home. (The liberal parallel to this argument is that presence of luxuriant malls and golf courses just a few miles up the road from Jebel Ali’s desert labor camps creates a special obligation to pay construction workers more.)
Both arguments are spurious — workers need Dubai rates of pay for Dubai work. Thousands of British expats seeking higher wages here settle for no less, so why should workers from the Indian subcontinent?
When we contrast the experiences of Indians and British in Dubai, it becomes clear that political forces help to shape the economic ones. Whereas the majority of the population is Indian, and even more so the majority of the work force, no opportunity is missed to stack the deck against them. Even a casual glance at the supermarket notice boards reveals a segregated housing market, where ethnicity and national origin is the first criteria for filling the city’s overpriced “bedspacers” — apartment blocks partitioned with hardboard and curtains to accommodate the maximum number of residents.
If this seems like Britain or the USA in the 1960s, so too does the criminal justice system, where the announcement of a defendant’s nationality allows for accurate prediction of the verdict. Following a mishap on the Sheikh Zayed Road, the decisive question for knowing which way the legal chips will fall is “What nationality was the driver?”
The regulation of the workforce is not confined to the workplace. Dubai Municipality repeatedly launches campaigns of social regulation based on resurrecting hitherto obscure rules with new interpretations. The past year has seen a campaign to drive ‘bachelors” out of villas, forcing groups of working men and women to either labor camps or overcrowded apartment blocks.
This coincided with repeated attempts to drive “pervs” from Dubai’s few remaining public beaches: the authorities and tame press take it for granted that Indian males have ulterior motives for taking in the sea air. Like the British before them, the Emirati public authorities have developed a consistent line in official hypocrisy.
This is clearest in relation to alcohol. Officially illegal under Islamic law, drinking almost inevitably crops up as a supplementary charge and easy conviction in countless cases of criminal law. Yet Dubai Duty Free is also a major supplier of alcohol in the region, operating under government auspices out of the two major airports.
Hotel licensing is treated as a necessary evil, and hotel bars serve alcohol to tourists and British expats (often while doubling as brothels on the main drags of Bur Dubai and Deira). Yet for residents from the Indian subcontinent who fancy a drink, mysterious rules about membership, “work clothes” and “national dress” are often used to exclude.
The same procedures fit nicely with Dubai’s claims to tolerance and cosmopolitanism: everyone is consigned to their place, with the Maktoum family and a majority of the UAE nationals on top of the pile.
Weighing in at just 20% of the population, and around 15% of the work force, Emiratis are clearly outnumbered. This often shows in official heritage preservation campaigns, ranging from the first Emirati superhero having his own daily comic strip to a rather apocalyptic falconry centre in Berkshire, England. The official theme for 2008 will be preserving the national identity.
Neighboring Bahrain’s contribution to Gulf state cooperation is to advocate a maximum six-year cap on residency by workers from the Indian subcontinent, lest “Arab areas become Asian.”
The insecurity of Dubai’s elite suggests that, far from heading up an economic powerhouse by strength of vision alone, they would be vulnerable to a determined majority combining industrial militancy with political demands for equal treatment.
from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)