In UAE, Tales of Paradise Lost

A migrant worker who lives in a squalid shantytown that was abandoned by his bankrupt employer boards a ferry that will take him and his colleagues to the domed Sharjah Federal Court, where they are trying to recover unpaid wages.
A migrant worker who lives in a squalid shantytown that was abandoned by his bankrupt employer boards a ferry that will take him and his colleagues to the domed Sharjah Federal Court, where they are trying to recover unpaid wages. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates, April 11 -- A sweltering fog still shrouded the East Coast & Hamriah Co. labor camp when, dressed in the equivalent of their Sunday best, the migrant workers set out after dawn Tuesday. They didn't shower beforehand. Water was cut last year to their shantytown, now abandoned by their employer. They didn't eat breakfast. They have no electricity to cook.

They simply bundled into plastic bags their yellowing court papers, an 18-month chronicle of their attempt to get paid by a now bankrupt company, and began their trek on foot -- six, maybe seven miles -- to the Sharjah Federal Court. They walked out a bent and rusted gate, past a crumbling cinder-block wall and through a sprawling pool of sewage, which splashed over their sandaled feet.

"Either they pay us or send our corpses home," said Imtiaz Ahmed Siddiq, one of the South Asian laborers, who has made the trek to the court more than 50 times since last year. "If they pay us, we'll go home alive. If they don't pay us, we'll go home dead."

For a decade now, the United Arab Emirates and, in particular, its powerhouse of a city-state, Dubai, have represented a rare success story in a troubled Arab world, a story of breakneck, even reckless development, investment and optimism. Nothing is too grand in the Emirates' Oz-like vision -- an underwater hotel, an indoor ski slope and man-made islands shaped like the palms that grace Persian Gulf beaches crowded with tourists. But there is growing unrest among the hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers here who have built the country's skylines, crowded with one-fifth of the world's cranes.

Although unions are banned, workers have launched strikes over the past year to protest living conditions, salaries of between $4 and $7 a day and hazardous workplaces, where human rights groups say deaths are sometimes covered up. In March, workers rioted at the site of Burj Dubai -- envisioned as the world's tallest skyscraper -- wrecking cars, computers and construction equipment. Last weekend, 1,000 workers rampaged in their camp.

Siddiq and the workers of the East Coast & Hamriah Co. live in conditions so bleak as to test their lingering faith. Their story is a Kafkaesque tale of those left behind, as they pursue salaries of hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars by trekking every few days to a court that has become their bane and hope.

"They keep us coming and going," Siddiq said, as the fog started to give way to the desert sun.

Their camp is in an industrial area on the edge of Sharjah, one of seven emirates that make up the UAE. With no money for taxis, the men walked down the dirt road, past piles of gravel and heavy machinery. They turned left. There were murmurs, but usually they just stayed silent, as if idle talk would attract too much attention.

The landscape before them opened like a quilt: Dirt roads soon gave way to paved streets, cinder block and corrugated tin to concrete, battered Toyota pickups to Mercedeses. The street became six lanes, and the low-slung hovels of their neighborhood made way for towers of steel and glass. A sun reflecting on a building's windows bathed the street in an otherworldly blue.

They passed shops with state-of-the-art bathroom fixtures and window displays of granite counters and marble columns. They passed the Mega Mall, the Crystal Plaza, the Royal House and an arcade of airline offices. Before them in the downtown sprawled a manicured park, with beds of pink and red flowers and towering date palms. Sprinklers got their feet wet again.

"It would be a nice life here, if you were paid," said Banwari Lal Bairawa, a 30-year-old Indian.

Siddiq nodded and pulled out a telegram from his brother, Mumtaz. It was dated Aug. 9, 2005. "Wife serious," it read. She had been taken to the hospital. "Come soon." Her leg was broken, Siddiq learned soon afterward. He hasn't talked to them since.


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