09/13/2005, 00.00
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Heaven for money, hell for Asian workers in the United Arab Emirates

More than 10 million Asians work in the Emirates in quasi-slave conditions. They make an average 200 dollars per month and can visit home once every two years. Trade unions and protests are banned.

Dubai (AsiaNews/Agencies) – An unprecedented real estate boom is underway in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and much of the work is done by workers held in quasi-slave conditions. Some 10 million foreign workers are employed in the country; many of them working at tens of metres from the ground building the Jumeira Beach Towers, the second most important real estate complex in the world after the one in Shanghai (China).

Whether from Afghan warlords or English football teams, local sheiks are drawing foreign investment to the local real estate market in order to turn Dubai into the Mideast's economic capital.

Dozens of skyscrapers are going up thanks to the legions of workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Men without a formal education and with little hope for employment back home come to the Gulf to earn 200 dollars US a month to feed and clothe their families. Usually, half of their salaries goes for their own meagre survival—rice, tea, sugar—in cramped quarters where six live to a room.

Whilst the 100,000 British expats in Dubai live like nabobs, Asian workers are banned from fancy stores, the new golf courses and the fashionable underwater restaurants. Instead, they have to put up working at 50 degrees Celsius, going home to see their families only once every two years, and getting injured in frequent work-related accidents.

Westerners barely notice them, only perhaps at the end of the working day when queues of exhausted men in filthy blue overalls wait patiently for their buses home to distant work camps on the city outskirts.

Mohammed Iqbal, from Hyderabad in India, is one of them. He has spent 10 years in Dubai. "I miss my family. But I can save some money here. I earn 600 dirhams (US$ 160) a month." Out of that, he spends 180 dirhams for food. On his one day off a week, he watches Bollywood DVDs and every spare penny is sent home.

These men have no voice and no rights. Ttrades unions are banned. Workers who have staged protests about their poor conditions have drawn swift crackdowns by police. 'Troublemakers' are rapidly deported.

In the UAE, of which Dubai is the biggest, guest workers are expected to do as they are told.

In 2003, the World Bank met in Dubai. Poverty was one of the items on its agenda.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the forced-labour conditions in which many migrant workers find themselves. Many suffer discrimination and abuse. Women, who come in huge numbers as maids and hotel workers, are at particular risk of violence and sexual assault.

In a letter to the World Bank president, HRW lamented that "[w]orkers are often afraid to demand unpaid wages, protest [against] poor conditions, or seek legal recourse for abuses." The letter fell on deaf ears.

Big companies, including many British companies, argue that workers have come to Dubai voluntarily.

Most of the Gulf's estimated 10 million foreign workers, mostly unskilled or semi-skilled, with few prospects at home, eventually save enough to buy the plot of land or tiny shop they dream of. But for years, they must endure a labour market closely resembling the old indentured labour system.

Even those who make their permanent home in the Emirates have no rights and can be expelled at any moment, even with their locally-born children, who are not considered UAE citizens. (PB)

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