Marketwatch: Paradise in the U.A.E.

By Raymond Beauchemin,

ABU DHABI (MarketWatch) — Abu Dhabi. Dubai. Financed by oil,
built with toil. Serious, sweaty toil.

It’s approaching summer here, which means temperatures that will rise close
to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and humidity reaching 90% (no conversion
needed there).

There’s what could be an urban legend here that the government never allows
the weather bureau to announce we’ve hit 50 degrees because then contractors
would have to give laborers a break, get them out of the heat. I don’t know if
that’s true: I’ve never seen the law myself, and don’t know anyone who has.

The government did come under a bit of heat this spring, though. Human Rights
Watch, the rights watchdog from New York, paid a visit to Abu Dhabi,
specifically to Saadiyat Island, the capital city’s cultural showcase, which
will feature Louvre and Guggenheim outposts, and accused the companies building
the museums of abusing their laborers. Also planned for the island are a branch
campus of New York University, a performing-arts center, residential complexes
and top-end hotels. Construction on the Louvre began in May. Work on the
Guggenheim begins this year. Neither is expected to be finished before 2013.

Among HRW’s claims: Workers live in dingy housing camps, labor in high heat
and humidity, work long hours, have poor health-care plans (if any) and have
their passports taken away from them by their employers. A report prepared by
the group said “a cycle of abuse … leaves migrant workers deeply indebted,
badly paid, and unable to stand up for their rights or even quit their jobs.”

It cited ruthless recruiting agencies that demand exploitative fees for
arranging employment to the workers, most of whom come from India, Pakistan, Sri
Lanka and elsewhere in Asia.

Publication of the HRW report came a month or so after “Panorama,” a BBC
documentary program, aired a video report of a visit to one of the camps. As you
can imagine, they weren’t pretty pictures. I haven’t been inside one of the
buildings myself, but I drive by them regularly enough. The road to my
daughter’s high school takes me by a camp. It ain’t pretty: Single-story shacks
stand conjoined in 10-deep rows. They are made of various construction elements:
concrete, wood, metal. They had been painted at one point. Rusting satellite
dishes litter the dusty ground. Uniform shirts and pants of faded blue, green
and gray hang listlessly on clotheslines. There’s not a tree in sight.

The U.A.E. was quick to answer the HRW and BBC claims. A government minister
invited reporters on a tour of a camp, inspected more than 1,800 camps and work
sites — and itself found that employers commonly paid their workers late or cut
wages. It then announced plans to build better accommodations. And the Tourism
Development and Investment Co., which is constructing Saadiyat Island’s museums,
is building a village it described as “one of the most advanced accommodation
and living facilities for construction workers in the Middle East.” The
village’s first residents arrive in July.

The TDIC said employers are not supposed to be seizing passports and are
encouraged to pay workers promptly. Also, it said it would take the HRW up on
its suggestion to provide contracts in a worker’s native language rather than
either Arabic or English.

A senior Labor Ministry official, Humaid bin Demas, announced that the U.A.E.
plans to establish a special labor court, encourage “model” housing and allow
workers to switch jobs if their employers don’t pay them for two months.

I know. I know. To Western ears and eyes, such promises to improve the lot of
laborers sound laughable, if not outrageous.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai pretty much shot up out of the desert and, quite
literally, into the air overnight, and it is clear that none of it — not one
block of it — would have been possible without the backs of laborers. To fault
the sheikhs who run the place, who have controlling interests of the companies
building or financing the building of the museums and the hotels and the villas
and the office towers, however, is unfair to them and not a true picture of
reality. Westerners, as investors and expatriate workers here, have benefited as
well. Play the game, share the blame.

The clichĂ© that Rome wasn’t built in a day is more than applicable here,
however: The U.A.E. turned 37 in December. (I don’t need to remind anyone, but I
will anyway, about the peculiar institution in place in the United States when
it was just 37.) The U.A.E.’s a young country with loads of money, speeding
along in terms of development and aspirations, trying to catch up to the West.
There are hopeful signs: One is the newspaper I work for, the first attempt by
Abu Dhabi to create a Western-style objective newspaper and freedom of the
press. Believe me when I write that there are people here who’d rather not see
the National on the newsstands. But in such a country as this, change comes from
the top, and the top decided it wanted and needed a free press. In the same way,
when the TDIC and Ministry of Labor say change is coming to the way laborers are
treated, it’s going to happen. These bodies did not make statements to make HRW
go away. Change will not happen overnight, and people will holler about it, but
change will come.

It will not come without help, however. The HRW report was helpful: It was a
clear reminder that the world is watching. The editorial stance of the National
is helpful as well: continual, guiding nudges. In an editorial June 24, on the
day that it was reported that the number of cases heard in the U.A.E. labor
court so far this year — 2,658 cases — is triple the number of cases heard in
the corresponding period last year, the paper asked: “Are more companies failing
to treat their workers fairly, or is the legal system getting better at rooting
out unacceptable practices?” Then it answers: “Where there are problems, the
first step has to be exposing them to the light of day.”

Those institutions interested in setting roots here can help by working with
the government, the financiers, the contractors, the subcontractors, to see to
it that the rights and welfare of workers are safeguarded. It’s in everyone’s
best interest.

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