After scoring yet another passport stamp at Dubai International Airport, the duty free shop offers you a sense of relief. The sights of luxury brands and wafts of perfume remind you that you are at least free from queuing for another hour until your carry-on bags are once again inspected at your departure gate.
The duty free shop is also a fascinating place to watch a slice of life in Dubai, especially at Terminal 2, where planes there depart for the more off-the-beaten path destinations. Depending on timing, the duty free zone can be a madhouse. And the most sought after goods are not the Channel perfumes or fancy boxes of dates.
Powdered milk. Powdered fruit drinks. Tang. Butter. Large bags of pistachios from Iran. Over the counter analgesics. Large bags of Tim Tams, an Australian snack cookie.
These items are being loaded into shopping carts, generally by men who have worked as laborers in Dubai or elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates for a few years. Most are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some are from Sudan and Ethiopia. The pressure on them regardless of background is relentless: to bring home presents and good quality products. Some workers stay an extra year just so they can finance the bevy of goodies that they are bringing back to their cities and villages. Many are dressed in nice clothes, giving observers no idea that they worked long days for years under harsh working conditions.
These men–and most are men–are the ones who are building and operating Dubai. Many of them build the roads, villas, skyscrapers and Dubai’s massive underbelly of infrastructure that is dug deep into the desert sands. The hours are long, the work back-breaking and the conditions exhausting during Dubai’s 50 degree Celsius summers. The fortunate ones work in developments like the one in which I stayed, where they can augment their wages by gardening, washing cars or offering minor repairs. Most live in labor camps, where they are isolated from the rest of the city’s residents, and therefore are not part of this Arabian Gulf City’s stunning diversity of cultures and backgrounds.
The luckier workers, again many from the Subcontinent, have more remunerative jobs. They may work in chain coffee shops like Tim Horton’s or Starbucks; are the security guards at apartment towers or office buildings; or drive the taxis that help keep Dubai moving all day and night.
It is true that for the vast majority of Dubai’s expatriate workforce, the chance to work here offers a better opportunity at life, to work and save money for a few years and to return home and live the rest of their days comfortably. That is the story told to me by some drivers like Partha (not his real name), who has lived in Dubai for 19 years, has driven a taxi the entire time, loves his work and is grateful for the opportunity.
Others are less sanguine. Rohit (again, not his real name) has driven taxis in Dubai for six years and is constantly stressed. After working the night shift for years from 3pm to 3am, he is now working the day shift, from 3am to 3pm. Rohit says he usually breaks even month after month and is not able to save. Last second demands to make that quick turn may get his passenger to his destination in time for that meeting or nightclub, but could earn the driver with a moving violation that will eat into his daily commission. The mounting fines that result from meeting passengers’ demands can wipe out his salary. And if he does not make those quick lane changes or sharp turns, he is just one customer complaint away from a reprimand, or even worse, his job.
As for the laborers who toil at the hardest jobs, the reality can be harsh as well. Stories about confiscated passports, delayed wages and dangerous working conditions were recounted to me by expatriates from all walks of life.
The easy and pat response is that for the vast majority of Dubai’s workers is that conditions are still better than they would be in their home country. That is true. And anyone in Dubai who is there even for a visit has access to basic services like health care. Some of the worst violators are the recruiters and managers that come from the same country as the people they have hired. Nevertheless, accounts of workers who are mistreated, denied basic rights or are not paid the wages they deserve sullies the reputation of a city that is becoming the economic and even cultural capital of the Middle East. And the response that “things are better here than they are over there” still does not make any affront to a human being’s dignity excusable.
As several residents, including Emirati and Arab expats, explained to me, Dubai’s government could do more to address these concerns, or to those who endure such hardships, outrages. But the typical reaction is to downplay the concerns, wipe them under the rug, or attempt to hush them.
Dubai and the rest of the Arabian Gulf region is often misunderstood by observers outside the region who are quick to attack and criticize but will not acknowledge the impressive changes that are occurring within the country. No society has undergone rapid transformation within a generation as countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. With skyrocketing growth comes growing pains, and naturally Dubai is experiencing them–the recent financial crisis was one sharp hiccup that only recently the emirate has shaken. But any pain needs a salve.
With the growing interest in sustainability and corporate social responsibility emerging in Dubai, its leadership would be wise to confront any labor and human rights violations head on, become more transparent and be proactive in confronting these problems. Some companies are doing just that. The massive Dubai Pearl project, the construction site of which I visited last month, is one such venue. Its management is placing huge emphasis on worker safety, and during my visit, I noticed signs that showed no accidents or missed work days had occurred up to that date. More companies should take such steps, and do more to ensure fair wages, decent living conditions and proper safety.
By addressing these problems head on, Dubai’s leadership will help earn its city even more respect from the outside world. The city is already a late 20th and 21st century miracle and compared to much of the globe, is welcoming and tolerant; but at a time when too much of the world is divided into haves and have-nots, Dubai and its neighbors could really take a stand and show that it is a truly just society.
Leon Kaye, based in California and who has recently returned from the Middle East, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Leon Kaye.