Sunday, May 18, 2008

All that glitters is not Dubai

All that glitters is not Dubai
The shockingly superfluous reportage of life in Dubai in Indian newspapers and news magazines, which would have us believe that the streets of this emirate, from where once upon a time dhows would set sail for Bombay laden with contraband now sold at discounted rates in the shabbiest of our malls, are paved with gold, is not quite the whole picture of what it means to live and work in this booming, flush-with-money former Bedouin outpost where India's bold and the beautiful, bored with Page 3 parties, fly off to for extended weekends of unbridled hedonism. The glittering high life that we get to read about is restricted to Dubai's wafer thin creamy layer, comprising sheikhs who can afford to squander millions of dollars for the company of camels declared winners at 'beauty contests', jet-setting fund managers with mind-boggling expense accounts and a variety of wheeler-dealers, many of whom are involved in 'export-import' businesses. Then there are those who have invested in property built on reclaimed land in the Palm Islands (three palm tree shaped man-made islands) and The World (a man-made archipelago of 300 islands), billed as the playground of the fabulously rich who are no longer charmed by the sun and the sea of the Bahamas and other such exotic places.
But behind the shimmering glass-and-chrome fa├žade of the Persian Gulf's most famous destination that has attracted millions of expatriate workers hopeful of striking it big lurks another face of Dubai. Here there are no sprawling malls with rosewater fountains, swank cordon bleu restaurants and bustling nightclubs. Instead, you will find dark and dingy, overcrowded labour camps where men bunk it out four to an eight-by-ten cubicle and dream of the day they can return home with a pocketful of dirhams. The fantastic cityscape that you see and the overflowing wealth that you encounter, have been created by these overworked, underpaid men -- and women -- from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other South and South-East Asian countries. Emerging as the 21st century's El Dorado where Tiger Woods is paid a million dollars to hit a ball into the sea from a newly-built hotel's helipad, Dubai continues to treat its expatriate blue collar workers as slaves of the medieval era, denying them human dignity and rights whose absence is curiously ignored by those from the West who are the prime beneficiaries of this emirate's booming economy. President Bill Clinton once famously described Dubai as a "role model" for others although he was sufficiently enraged by human rights violations in the Balkans to despatch Nato bombers.
Nobody would suggest that the entire expatriate community is condemned to a life of grim existence. But the vast majority of Dubai's 2.7 million foreign workers (of which 1.5 million are Indians) registered with the Ministry of Labour finds itself excluded from both the emirate's prosperity and the trickle down benefits of an economy shooting through the roof, despite the roof getting pushed higher and higher. The number of such expatriates increases by leaps and bounds when you add to their ranks domestic help, drivers, gardeners, 'free zone' workers and those without legal papers. Immigration sponsorship laws have been designed in a manner that vests employers with limitless power while stripping employees of all rights, including the right to walk out of a job. Even if expatriate workers want to give it all up and take the next flight to, say, Kochi, they cannot do so because passports and travel papers have to be kept in the custody of employers. So, in a sense, they are no different from indentured labour and must toil tirelessly till their contracts come to an end. What makes the situation doubly worse is the fact that these contracts are signed only after workers reach Dubai and their bargaining power has been vastly reduced; more often than not, the terms and conditions of these contracts are entirely different from what had been promised by recruiting agents.
Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that wages will be paid on time. There are numerous cases of contractors winding up operations and leaving workers in the lurch with huge backlogs of unpaid wages. At Burj Dubai, touted as the world's tallest building, workers forced to meet construction targets in the most appalling conditions and in violation of basic safety norms, have gone on strike more than once for not being paid their wages or being denied medical care. Workers have gone on strike at other construction sites, too. Earlier this year, a Dubai court, in a first of its kind ruling, sentenced 45 Indian construction workers to six months in jail, to be followed by their deportation, for joining a protest against poor wages.
A common refrain that one gets to hear, provided you are interested in hearing it, is of working hours being extended beyond what the contract stipulates and without overtime wages. There are numerous reports of employers cutting back on expenses by not paying the utility bills for labour camps. So garbage piles up in festering heaps, power supply is disconnected and transport to construction sites is withdrawn. If you don't show up for work, not because you don't want to but because you can't, you are penalised. It never gets too hot in Dubai for workers toiling under the desert Sun -- you can drop dead but not take a break.
Many of these workers scrimp on personal expenses so that they can send most of their earnings to families back home where debts have to be repaid and hungry mouths fed. With the dirham, which is linked to the dollar, no longer a strong currency, the rupee value of workers' remittances has declined precipitously in the past couple of years even as wages have remained constant. Some estimates place the decline at between 25 and 30 per cent; others say it is more. As a result, Dubai/UAE-based grooms are no longer a hot ticket in Kerala.
In the poorly-lit, ill-ventilated and crowded labour camps of Dubai, far away from where DJ Aqeel spins out foot-stomping, hip-swaying music, expatriate workers brood over their miserable lives and despair at the thought of having to cope with slave-drivers at their workplaces till their contracts come to an end. Many are driven to committing suicide, although statistics are kept a tightly guarded secret and even the Indian mission will pretend either ignorance or lack of information. It must be conceded, though, that Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed has been trying to change things for the better, but there is no guarantee that his successor will be equally pro-active. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, of course, couldn't be bothered about the unwashed masses since it is busy pandering to rich NRIs and PIOs disdainful of India.


VB said...

The Indian labourers in Dubai can't vote for the Congress. Why do you think Sonia Gandhi would give two hoots about them?

Dubai inc is not interested in you if you don't have any monetary worth. For its own people, it takes very very good care of them.

Kanchan Gupta said...

Yes, that's the tragic part.

Inquiring Mind said...

it seems congress only exists to facilitate cheap labour for the former colonisers..