Behind Dubai's Can-Do Spirit: Must-Do 'Indentured Servitude'

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"If it looks like gold and silver, it is," says a helpful young tour guide at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace, a hotel and meeting hall that dazzles all comers. But the dark side of everything that glitters in the United Arab Emirates is the vast wealth differential between those who own the buildings and those who build them. Although the Emirates has been working toward basic worker protections, human rights groups say laborers are still routinely exploited, work in unsafe conditions, live in crowded labor camps and face quick deportation if they complain or agitate for union protection.

Hadi Ghaemi, who wrote a report for Human Rights Watch detailing the abuses, says more than 95 percent of the people working in the Emirates are outside workers. For the least skilled of these temporary residents -- the approximately 1.2 million men who do the manual work of raising the towers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi -- conditions are bleak.

Often they are heavily indebted to the labor contractors who bring them to the Emirates and must first work to pay off this debt.

"It is literally indentured servitude for the first few years," Ghaemi says. "It takes them one to two years of their wages to pay it back."

Government officials in the Emirates point to recent reforms and a labor law that forbids past abuses, such as holding workers' passports (thereby assuring that they can neither leave nor complain).

"The situation has improved," says a government spokesman, who asked not to be identified because he isn't officially charged with responding to labor questions. He says the speed of earlier development overwhelmed the government's ability to oversee labor conditions, and that the worst of the abuse is coming from foreign labor contractors who import workers to Dubai -- a problem that has to be solved in their home countries.

-- Philip Kennicott

© 2007 The Washington Post Company