The workers are given a full safety briefing every few days and are not allowed on site without a safety belt and helmet. – Photo by author

“Excuse me lady, but do you have a written permit to talk to these workers?” he asked, curtly. The man looked about 40, with untidy stubble on his chin and spoke with a thick Arabic accent.

“Oh I was just asking them if they could summon the contractor or site engineer for me,” I replied.

Here I was, parked next to a construction site in Dubai, trying to find out if blue-collar workers in Dubai were really as exploited and mistreated as some stories in the media would have you believe.

To initiate conversation, I asked the workers when the building they are working on will be done and enquired if their manager would let me have short interviews with them. The man’s immediate concern at my conversation with the construction workers made me think: “this should be interesting.”

I introduced myself as a writer who wanted to do a story about construction workers in Dubai and the man introduced himself as the contractor. I politely requested a few minutes of the workers’ time and the contractor began to panic.

“B-b-but what if the workers talk too much? What if you quote our company and our names?” he faltered, despite my assurances that I would not include any real names. He suddenly seemed to think he had spoken too much and said almost aggressively, “But the workers are fine! They get their salaries! They are okay!”

“Of course, but maybe I could talk to them for a few minutes?” I asked.

The contractor was now pacing around the site. He suddenly walked towards my car and said, “Okay, but only for a few moments, and only if the site engineer listens to every word they say, because like I said, the workers might talk too much and they wouldn’t even know what they’re saying,” he conceded.

Three men in messy green overalls walked meekly towards my car. A site engineer with a long moustache followed them closely and hung on to their every word. I posed some questions about living conditions, salaries and safety measures on site. The workers responded in monosyllables, nodding their heads under the watchful eye of the site engineer.

“Yes, it is all perfect for us in Dubai,” said one Nepali man tonelessly, looking towards the ground.

“Thanks,” I muttered, frustrated.

I had set out to discover if life for the labour class in Dubai, the very people responsible for constructing the glorious edifices dotting the city, was really all that it is made out to be, and if their plight was as sad as some stories in the international media have shown. Getting them to talk without inhibitions was a challenge, but I thought I would have to find a way.

It was a new day. The evening shadows were getting longer, and workers dressed in blue uniforms were filing out of the construction site as they walked by my car. Some were carrying spades on their shoulders, whilst some were empty-handed. I could hear a popular Bollywood song playing on one of their cell-phones whilst some indulged in light-hearted banter. It seemed tempting to strike up a conversation with them, especially since I couldn’t spot anyone else around.

“Hard work, this,” I said casually, gesturing towards the building behind us. One worker almost jumped in surprise, as though a woman had never spoken to him before.

“Madam, aap ham ko bola? (Did you speak to me?),” he said, taken aback.

I assured him he wasn’t mistaken and soon a throng of workers (made up mostly of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi labourers) in blue overalls gathered around my car.

Meaningful conversation finally ensued. The workers told me they always got paid on time since the government finally has some rules in place to protect the labour force. They wake up early in the morning in their labour camps, six men to one room and start work promptly at 6:30 am. At about 9:00 am they are given a short tea break, and then they are given a break at 12:00 noon for an hour, after which work begins again. Then they work until about 5:30, after which the bus takes them to Sonapur, where their quarters are located.

I then enquired about safety measures.

“Doesn’t anyone ever fall from these lofty structures? Are you aware of what you must do to be safe?”

They informed me that they are given a full safety briefing every few days and are not allowed on site without a safety belt and a safety helmet. One worker chuckled as he said, “Madam, we are big, strong men. We can handle ourselves, really.”

When they fall sick, they are sometimes given a day off, if they have the doctor’s approval, that is. Usually the doctor’s visits are paid for by the company but sometimes the workers must shell out their own dough for paying medical bills.

When I asked how often they go back home, the workers sighed in gloom. One man hadn’t been home in five years, another six, whilst some had been working continuously for three years, with Friday being their only weekly holiday. The contracting companies held their passports but the workers must buy their own tickets. Since almost every penny is religiously wired back home, it is only after a long time that they are able to save enough to fly home.

My last question sparked quite a reaction. It seems as though I had touched a nerve when I asked “Respect is the main issue, isn’t it? No one gives you due respect here. You build all these wonderful towers and they treat you like ….”

All at once, the workers began to talk. “We work hard all day, but these people, they treat us like dirt,” said Baksh, who hadn’t visited India for six years. It was only after a few minutes that I watched them being ushered into their bus as though they were cattle. Despite probing questions, I heard no reports of salaries being withheld, or passports not being given to the workers if and when they asked for them. Despite a few problems, these workers prefer to stay in the UAE and earn whatever they can, because it is usually significantly better than what they might get back home.

As I headed home, I realised I needed more research.

I kept posing my questions to different workers serving different companies, and most of the information coincided with what I had already learnt. My next meeting was with someone who worked closely with these men as the contractor, and had visited their quarters: Abdullah.

Abdullah was frank, as he talked about the labour camps. “They are really dirty. Not enough bathrooms,” he said. He, too, reaffirmed that salaries are on time, or else the government could revoke the contracting company’s licence. As for safety measures, he said that in Dubai, work cannot be started without having proper safety measures in place and that the site engineer must submit a detailed safety report every two weeks.

“I’m glad I work in Dubai, really. When compared to other states like Sharjah and Abu Dhabi we are better off. The situation is much worse in the rest of the Gulf. The condition has actually improved in recent times.”

The most revealing account of the conditions came from Benjamin. Ben works with a prominent international contracting company in Dubai, and has been working closely with the labour for several years. He confirmed the report on timely salaries but also backed the stories about several workers being deep in debt, which is largely due to their labour agents back home, (who must be monitored, he said) and has little to do with the contracting company.

The workers are entitled, by law, to a compulsory three-hour break everyday and that most international companies keep in line with all such obligations. However, during the interviews with various workers, they said the breaks were only an hour-and-a-half long. The heat, in this part of the world, very harsh.

What Ben revealed next was also disturbing. According the law, the workers are given two months off every two years and international contracting companies uphold this law, and grievances are addressed. He, in fact, felt that this vacation was too little and that companies must seek to provide more time off.

His opinion of the working quarters differed vastly from Abdullah’s. “Hygiene standards are high,” he said. A legislation has been put in place to upgrade living conditions, and even in the food provided to workers, ethnic preferences are taken into account. This, he insisted may differ with smaller companies that are not as careful.

When I mentioned reports in the international media that lament the treatment meted out to Dubai’s labourers, he said, “the stories must be old.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

 The author is a freelancer writer based in Dubai.

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