The sleeping giant: Foreign workers in Dubai

Dubai is a place that has become synonymous with an Arab rags-to-riches story. But Dubai's reputation as a rapidly expanding state has been built on the toil of exploited foreign workers. MENASSAT sent photographer Simba Russeau and writer Jackson Allers on a five-day trip to extract some of these workers' stories.
Dubai Workers. © Simba Russeau /
The crossroads: the road to the labor camps in Sagaa city, 40 km. from Dubai city. © Simba Russeau

DUBAI, June 6, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Sandals. Lots of sandals in the Dubai airport – the ubiquitous footwear of the foreign worker armies milling about customs waiting for visa approvals in huge lines stretching out the corridors leading to baggage claim.

Coming from Beirut, I didn't have sandals as I stepped up to a customs official and asked where I could get my visa.

"You're American? You don't need one sir, please go to baggage claim," he said pointing me to an escalator past the workers.


The Dubai Arabs with their designer luggage, their silk gelabiyeh's, and Ferragamo loafers wearing $600 per ounce Aoud oil did not have cheap Chinese-made sandals. Nor were their feet sockless exposing chapped, white-blistered skin like the scores of East Asian men wondering about.

Photographer Simba Russeau and I were entering the United Arab Emirates for the first time. We had heard so much, seen so much on television, of its architectural wonders, golf courses with Tiger Woods appearances and western malls filled with British ex-patriots content with their retirement villas.

I felt my privilege distinctly, and that feeling of privilege never left me in the 5 days I spent with Russeau in the taxis, buses, malls and labor slums as we chased the story that had been bringing many of our ilk to the UAE in recent months -- the "rags-to-riches miracle" of Dubai which some said was "built on the toil of exploited foreign workers." 

Still, little prepared me for the totality of the foreign worker presence in Dubai.

Foreign workers climb aboard water taxis after work. © Simba Russeau

Dubai started to be a replacement tourist destination for the Middle East as a result of the dangers faced in Lebanon during the civil war (1975-1990). Up until that point Lebanon had enjoyed the reputation of being the "Paris of the Middle-East," or the "Riviera of the Arab world."
Then in the early 1970's, a young Sheikh Mohammed saw an opportunity to attract tourists away from Lebanon, turning Dubai into a transit destination for travelers coming from Europe and going to the Far East.

Post-9/11 boom

And it was during the early to mid-1990s that East Asian workers, especially those from rural villages in India and later Pakistan, began making their way in much larger numbers to assist in Dubai's burgeoning construction development.

To be sure East Asian workers were part of the labor landscape before the 1990's, with the first waves arriving after oil was discovered in 1966. But, the huge rise in foreign workers didn't occur until Dubai became firmly established as a business and development hub giving shape to the meteoric rise it has come to enjoy after September 11, when Arabs took to investing their oil wealth in their own backyard.

Officially, some 80 percent of Dubai's population is foreign, with around 18 percent being from the UAE. With a population of around 1.5 million people, well over one million hailed from locations in East Asia. Human Rights Watch estimates that in Dubai alone, there are well over 500 thousand construction workers from Asia.

Although sources estimate that some $300 billion dollars have been or are being invested in Dubai currently, this development has not been the result of some magic wand wafting over the desert. The workers built this place.

Where they live: the view from the inside of the labor camp living quarters. © Simba Russeau

A group of Bangladeshis that were part of a large municipal works construction site came up to say hello after a simple wave their way. They were sitting down with their construction uniforms and their muddied boots and with teeth stained from their incessant smoking; they were nothing but open.

One man in his 20's, Mohammed Jitumiya, approached me to let me know what he and his co-workers were dealing with here in Dubai.

$149 per month

With his ill-fitting hard hat and his broken English, he told me that he was contracted to come to Dubai 6 months before to serve out a two-year contract, a standard time-frame for most foreign construction workers there.

"I was on plane with 150 Bangladeshis. I sleep at a place with 3,000 people," Jitumiya said.

"You mean there are 3,000 people in the camp where you live?" I asked.

"Yes 3,000 people where I live. I make 520 Dirhams per month. They take 120 out of my salary each month for rent and food," he said.

Because the value of the UAE currency, Dirhams, has been pegged to the US dollar, that means Jitumiya was making roughly $149 per month for heavy construction work. And, as the dollar weakens, so do his salary rates.
"No good," Jitumiya told me before a Pakistani security guard stopped my discussion and told me to talk to the sites acting manager - a Turkish fellow by the name of Aymet.

Raj Kundar, a 35-year old Nepalese man from Katmandu, came to the UAE in 1999. I met him while walking through Bur Dubai's 'City Center' area, in search for a Nepalese restaurant on our third day.

At the time I was in Dubai, the Nepalese government was negotiating the demands of the Maoist insurgency in their bid to dissolve the centuries old monarchy. I thought there's was a perspective that would be unique among the hundreds of thousands of other East Asians, not the least because they, along with the Bangladeshis, were on the lower rung of the social hierarchy in the workers' ranks.

"We have been here for a long time, we know how the system here works," one Indian wholesale silk merchant told me in the Gold Souk.

<spanRaj Kundar. © Jackson Allers

"Why are the Bangladeshis and the Nepalis considered lower in the social food chain?" I asked.

"Because they’re like we were some 15 years ago. Naïve and unaware of how they fit in here. There are opportunities for a select group of them if they are smart," he said.

But for most foreign workers coming to Dubai, there concerns are more immediate.
Raj Kundar.

"I left my Nepal to give my children good education, so I need money, too much money to give them a good education. Almost all Nepalese have the same reasons for coming here," Raj told me as we sat near the water along Dubai creek on the Bur Dubai side where many of the Nepalese came to socialize on Fridays, the UAE's official day of rest.

In Raj's case, that meant putting two boys through school and supporting the entire extended family of his wife in Katmandu.

"I can go back to Nepal every one year or really about every 15 months," he told me.

50 degrees heat

In his 15 years in the Arab world, Raj had risen to scaffolding supervisor – responsible for building and maintaining the temporary structures that frame construction sites. As a supervisor his pay rate was better, some 900- 1000 Dirham per month depending on the job, or roughly $300. But, he said, the cost of living had also risen.

"I used to spend about 100 Dirham per month on food when I first arrived. Now I spend 300 Dirham per month for food," roughly 100 dollars per month up by $70 from when he first arrived nearly 8 years ago.

Still, Raj said his biggest problem working in the UAE was the heat, which climbs to upwards of 50 degrees centigrade in the summer months and averages between 36 and 40 year round.

For new arrivals, he said the substantial debt-burden made it hard to send money home to their families initially.

"I paid 25,000 Rupies in 1996 to come to Saudia Arabia," the equivalent of about $500 USD at the time, "but today Nepalese are paying about 130,000 Rupies to come to the Arab world, which the agencies in Nepal split with Dubai agencies," Raj added.

That's about $2,100.

"Do you have a dream Raj? What do you hope will come of all of this," I asked.

He answered, "I hope not to come back."


"Five years. Ten years. I cannot say," Raj responded.

A Bangladeshi worker in the Gold Souk. © Simba Russeau

Our human resource contact in Dubai, Nader, a Lebanese man working for a start-up construction company, drove us out to Sagaa – the industrial district some 40 kilometers outside of the Dubai Emirate – in order to survey the conditions at two camps and talk to the workers.

"The conditions here are better than in most camps, I assure you," Nader told me on the way to meet the workers.

Inside the labor camps

Sagaa was most definitely not Dubai. It was absolutely bleak, and completely characterless. The smells were also industrial, a mixture of desert air and diesel fumes layered with the soot and dust kicked up by the massive amounts of transit vehicles, buses, tractor-trailers and vans, traveling along the unpaved roads in and out of the areas where the camps were located.

The road leading into the camp was still a bit muddy due to the rare rainstorms that had blanketed the area just days before our arrival.

Sultan a 45-year old father of three from Islamabad, and the camp's foreman, was the first to greet us at the camps entrance, as other workers milled about or did their laundry.

A self-professed karate black belt, Sultan had lived more than 18-years outside of his home in Islamabad, working and sending remittances back to his family to finance the building of a new apartment and putting his kids through school.

He spoke German, Urdu, Hindu and English, and his linguistic abilities qualified him to be the middleman between management and those hailing from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

In the late 1990's, Sultan moved to the U.S. state of Maryland to work. He left after September 11, he said "because it was not safe for me there anymore."

As he toured me around the camp, I was transported to the illegal migrant farm worker labor camps' that I had seen in the rural southern United States during my university days as a labor organizer.

Squat, nasty and with no real ventilation, the 300 or-so workers stayed 10 to a room in the sparse cement cinder block-housing complex. Bunk beds were stacked in rows along the walls with no closets in rooms, which were no bigger than 6 meters by 5 meters.

All of their belongings were out in plain sight. There was no privacy.

"Is there a contrast living here when you compare it with the United States for example?" I asked Sultan.

"Of course, the living conditions are worse in Dubai, but in truth, I don't really spend anything here. There’s nothing to spend money on here. You live. You work. Eat, sleep. That's it," Sultan said.

"But, I am doing more than what I am getting paid for here," he added.

Eventually Sultan introduced me to Usman, who was the janitorial manager of the labor camp.

Usman sitting outside his quarters in Sagaa city. © Simba Russeau

Usman, a 43-year old father of three from the coastal city of Pasni in Pakistan was a bicycle repairman.

"What kind of bikes? Motorbikes or bicycles?" I asked.

"Bicycles… like Sohrab," he said referring to the country’s most famous local bicycle model.

He loved his job in Pakistan, but with mouths to feed, and his kids advancing in their schooling, he felt it was time to make a move so he came to the UAE in early 2007.

8 months into a two-year contract in the summer of 2007 a crane hoisting a large crate full of electrical equipment had a nail sticking out of it, and as the crate rounded itself near the position where Usman was working, the protruding nail literally ripped his calf to shreds as it passed by him.

Usman's sandle: the defining footwear of the foreign worker in Dubai.
© Simba Russeau

"When the crate passed by I felt this horrible sting in my leg, and I was lifted a little off the ground...the next thing I know, I was bleeding and I went into shock. I could not feel my leg and could not see it because of all the blood."

When I asked him what the company did to help him, he replied, "Well. Nothing really."

"What do you mean, nothing? Didn't they pay for your medical treatment?" I asked in disbelief.

He said, "They took me to emergency and patched me up. Then, they sent me back to Pakistan. I asked them what they would do to help me with my injury, and they said 'Nothing here in Dubai.' They said 'Go home. They will fix you there.' But, they did not pay anything except the plane ticket home because they said that it was not their responsibility."

He said he took one month to heal.

"How is that possible?" I asked.

"If I didn’t work then I would make no money and my family would suffer," he said.

Usman sitting on his bed in the labor camp. © Simba Russeau

"What is your dream? Tell me. What's your dream?" I asked Usman.

"I don't have any dreams," he tells me.

"You don't have any dreams? No?" I wondered, incredulously.

"No," was his simple reply.

"For your family, for someone. No. Just to be healthy?" I probed.

"Nothing. Allah..."

"Come on," I interrupted him, continuing, "You must have a dream?"

Sultan who had been acting as translator and guide told me, "You know what he said? He said one day he's going to die, so he doesn't want anything."

Usman then continued, "I have only one dream. I want to take a Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca]."

"Is it because he knows he will take nothing with him when he dies? Can you ask him?" I urged Sultan.

But Usman continued unprompted, "If Allah gives to me money. Then it's good. If he is not giving money to me. What can I do? I don't have anything. God is giving good money, he who is deserving money."

Although Usman's story was a tragic one, it was by no means wholly unique.

Exit strategy

There were other tragedies. Hundreds, likely thousands in Dubai's construction sector over the years. I had read about some of them in articles written before my journey to the UAE. Human Rights Watch's own research on the injury and death rates of migrants in the UAE is perhaps the only of its kind – which to me said something about government oversight and moral culpability.

23-year old Antu from Bangladesh: "They can do whatever they want...
I have no education." © Simba Russeau

According to all of my interviews, the choice to come to Dubai was a result of the economic and political situations in their home countries. Dubai was one place they knew to turn to try and escape the larger cycle of poverty they were trapped in.

One of the workers at the camp, Antu, a 23-year old from a small village outside of the city of Shariatpur in Bangladesh said, "They [the management] can do anything they want. Because I have no education, they can treat me however they want."

In mid-March, nearly two months after president Bush's visit to the Middle East, the press reported that about 1,500 workers in Dubai went on strike in Sagaa, hitting the dusty streets in the exact area we had visited, and setting ablaze dozens of vehicles.

"Yeah there are strikes all the time! It just doesn't make the news. But believe me, they're increasing in frequency, not decreasing," our human resources contact, Nader, said.

Mohammed, a cameraman from a Bangladesh television station said it best.

On the back of a bus riding from the Gold Souk during our last day in Dubai, he said, "I think Sheikh Mohammed should address the issues of the workers now, or they will have more long term problems with the labor force issue. In fact, no one will want to work here and workers will be more brave to act for their rights."