DUBAI (Reuters) – Beyond the gleaming towers, busy highways and luxury villas of Dubai, hundreds of thousands of South Asian labourers who helped build them live in cramped and dusty industrial zones. Frustrated by low wages and long hours, construction workers in the Gulf Arab trade hub have long complained about the poor working conditions that lie behind Dubai’s spectacular building boom. This week, those protests turned violent.
“They turned over police cars, and the police showed up and they created problems with them,” said an Egyptian labourer who declined to give his name.
“They are asking for higher wages… They stopped working suddenly. They stopped cars. The police arrived to stop them from closing down the road and (they) assaulted the police. The police besieged the camp, and picked up … workers and (charged them).”
The Gulf News daily reported on Thursday that of some 5,000 workers were rounded up during the protests on Saturday, some 800 were still in custody. It quoted the police chief, Dahi Khalfan Tamim, as saying that workers involved in vandalising police vehicles and public property would be prosecuted.
Dubai, one of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, has long faced criticism from international human rights groups who say it turns a blind eye to the non-payment of wages, lack of medical care and sub-standard housing for workers.
Foreigners, including labourers and middle and high-income executives, comprise over 85 percent of the UAE’s 4 million population.
Labourers in coloured overalls can be seen toiling on the construction sites that dot Dubai, which has used cash from record oil prices to build ambitious developments including the world’s tallest building and three palm-shaped islands as well as a man-made archipelago shaped like a map of the world.
The government has revised the labour law in recent months to include requirements that employers pay for migrant workers’ travel, employment permits, medical tests and health care.
The government has also closed down some workers’ camps that do not meet minimal health and safety standards in an effort to crack down on companies that abuse migrant workers.
But in March, New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said a UAE draft labour law fell far short of international standards for the rights of workers.
“The problem was the salary, because our salary (is) not very much,” one Pakistani labourer said in broken English. “Not much … maybe one … hundred (dollars). So, this is a big problem.” Some problems begin in the workers’ home countries, where they are recruited with false promises of good pay to send home.
Many are illiterate and cannot read the contracts they sign before they go. In Dubai, many labourers end up living in crowded rooms they share in camps run by their employers. Some have their passports held by employers to stop them running away.
The United States, which is negotiating a free trade pact with the UAE, is pressing the Gulf Arab state to apply international standards to its workforce.
But while the UAE has vowed to punish firms that do not pay employees on time or force them to live or work in poor conditions, labour unions remain illegal and protests can often end in deportation.
“Some will be deported, the ones that made trouble will go back to their countries,” another Egyptian worker said.
“Those that are working and haven’t caused any problems will be released from jail and return to work.”