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Greenwashing Labor Injustices in Dubai

CCA LiveE | Thursday December 8th, 2011 | 5 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

The Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa, the Tallest building in the world, 2011

By Niveen Sayeed

The city-state of Dubai in the UAE has grown explosively during its 40 years of existence, and the city planners’ priorities have been to build the largest, the newest and the most unique-whatever it took to keep them in the global limelight.

What they repeatedly failed to consider is sustainability. Not the type of sustainability that is achieved by Dubai following the global greening trend in an effort to maintain an image, but the type of less visible investment that is essential for the long term. They shortsightedly kept growing the city’s footprint without scaling its road network, resulting in terrible traffic problems. They created high-rise after high-rise with no sewage infrastructure to support them, causing ludicrous waste treatment issues; and most importantly, they subject the human capital creating all of their record-breaking developments, to discrimination and abuse.

Dubai may have formed several “green” governmental agencies in response to the WWF Living Planet report of 2008 which awarded the UAE the highest carbon footprint in the world, but if those greening measures do not handle the land and labor resources sustainably, then they are merely cosmetic. Dozens of policies and systems in place to build sustainable and environmentally conscious developments are rendered meaningless if the essential resource of labor remains disenfranchised. As an architect born in Dubai, I cannot accept this disparity between the treatment of those who occupy the buildings and those who create them.

Behind all of Dubai’s unnatural growth, there has historically been an undercurrent of social injustice, widely captured by the foreign press and Human Rights Watch. There are many nuances of this discrimination and abuse across all parts of the carefully striated social pyramid, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the construction workers. Dubai’s famous luxury malls, the world’s tallest building, and man-made islands are a direct result of the sweat and toil of migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. However, they are routinely excluded from the upscale malls that they build, or from traveling in the “Gold Class” cars on the Dubai Metro. Even so, these restrictions are the least of their problems.

Overcrowded room in a labor camp

According to Human Rights Watch reports, their employers routinely exploit their vulnerable position through non-payment of wages, passport confiscation, creating hazardous working conditions, and providing squalid living conditions in labor camps. After a series of revolts by the construction workers between 2005 and 2009, the Ministry of Labor passed a law in 2009 to implement a direct electronic payment system for migrant workers’ salaries and a manual for improving their treatment and accommodations. However, Human Rights Watch maintains that these regulations are only effective if they carry significant penalties for breaching them. The low fines are immaterial in comparison with the multi-million dollar development contracts to which they are related.

The objectives of these labor laws have been incorporated into a new green building rating system called Estidama.  This rating system is based on the American LEED and British BREEAM systems, and is part of a larger initiative to reduce their carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2030. This initiative sounds promising, however, as Dubai moves forward with its agenda of building sustainably in the future, these projects should require a holistic effort that also prioritizes sustainable human capital. As it stands, the Estidama system allows for a meager 2 percent of optional credits if one follows the labor condition improvement guidelines. As a widely recognized problem within Dubai, incorporating improved labor regulations should be a requirement, not an option. Isn’t human dignity worth at least as much as natural light in an office space?

Niveen Sayeed is a designer in San Francisco and a first year Design Strategy MBA student at California College of the Arts.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Naeem-Rahim/596861724 Naeem Rahim

    love it. very well written.

  • Huma Qureshi

    Excellent read….makes me think twice about visitng Dubai.

  • M A Sayeed

    A real good assessment of the treatment meted out to labour.Perhaps an important fact has been missed that the labour force creating beautiful high-rise are working in 45 degree and above temperature and are deprived of basic health facilities.

  • fatima

    Great points–and more needs to be done to fix this problem.

  • ZedKay

    The incredibly fast paced growth of Dubai has always struck me as unnatural and, in fact, eerie. Kudos to the author for shedding some light on this disturbing situation. Keep digging, I have a feeling this is just the tip of the iceberg.