The dark side of Dubai is an article by Johann Hari about the slave-underclass of Dubai. This article will make you sick. If it doesn't, your soul is in desperate peril.
I had heard about the wage based on race thing from a travel nurse before. There are so many sad labor and human rights violations mentioned I don't know where to begin expressing sorrow or outrage. Choice quotes:
"As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. 'But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,' he said. 'Well, then you'd better get to work,' they replied.
Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.
He shows me his room. It is a tiny, poky, concrete cell with triple-decker bunk-beds, where he lives with 11 other men. All his belongings are piled onto his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The room stinks, because the lavatories in the corner of the camp – holes in the ground – are backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. There is no air conditioning or fans, so the heat is 'unbearable. You cannot sleep. All you do is sweat and scratch all night.' At the height of summer, people sleep on the floor, on the roof, anywhere where they can pray for a moment of breeze.
The water delivered to the camp in huge white containers isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. 'It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink,' he says.
The work is 'the worst in the world,' he says. 'You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable ... This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. It's like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer.'
He is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower, where he builds upwards, into the sky, into the heat. He doesn't know its name. In his four years here, he has never seen the Dubai of tourist-fame, except as he constructs it floor-by-floor.
Is he angry? He is quiet for a long time. 'Here, nobody shows their anger. You can't. You get put in jail for a long time, then deported.' Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their wages for four months. The Dubai police surrounded their camps with razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work.
The 'ringleaders' were imprisoned. I try a different question: does Sohinal regret coming? All the men look down, awkwardly. 'How can we think about that? We are trapped. If we start to think about regrets...' He lets the sentence trail off. Eventually, another worker breaks the silence by adding: 'I miss my country, my family and my land. We can grow food in Bangladesh. Here, nothing grows. Just oil and buildings.'
Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. 'We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison.'
This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: 'There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'.' Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a 'cover-up of the true extent' of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.
Later, in a hotel bar, I start chatting to a dyspeptic expat American who works in the cosmetics industry and is desperate to get away from these people. She says: 'All the people who couldn't succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they're rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I've never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world.' She adds: 'It's absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she's paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month.'
With the exception of her, one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.
It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.
In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is 'terrifying' for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. 'They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.' At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn't interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn't eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I'm powerless.'
This is not to mention the environmental disaster:
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. 'At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil...' he shakes his head. 'We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive.'
'It started like this. We began to get complaints from people using the beach. The water looked and smelled odd, and they were starting to get sick after going into it. So I wrote to the ministers of health and tourism and expected to hear back immediately – but there was nothing. Silence. I hand-delivered the letters. Still nothing.'
The water quality got worse and worse. The guests started to spot raw sewage, condoms, and used sanitary towels floating in the sea. So the hotel ordered its own water analyses from a professional company. 'They told us it was full of fecal matter and bacteria 'too numerous to count'. I had to start telling guests not to go in the water, and since they'd come on a beach holiday, as you can imagine, they were pretty pissed off.' She began to make angry posts on the expat discussion forums – and people began to figure out what was happening. Dubai had expanded so fast its sewage treatment facilities couldn't keep up. The sewage disposal trucks had to queue for three or four days at the treatment plants – so instead, they were simply drilling open the manholes and dumping the untreated sewage down them, so it flowed straight to the sea.
Suddenly, it was an open secret – and the municipal authorities finally acknowledged the problem. They said they would fine the truckers. But the water quality didn't improve: it became black and stank. 'It's got chemicals in it. I don't know what they are. But this stuff is toxic.'
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. 'Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out,' they said. She says: 'The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!' There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.
'What I learnt about Dubai is that the authorities don't give a toss about the environment,' she says, standing in the stench. 'They're pumping toxins into the sea, their main tourist attraction, for God's sake. If there are environmental problems in the future, I can tell you now how they will deal with them – deny it's happening, cover it up, and carry on until it's a total disaster.' As she speaks, a dust-storm blows around us, as the desert tries, slowly, insistently, to take back its land."
Bonus: ABC video coverage. A little long, so I would skip to 9 minutes 12 seconds if you're short on time.