In Dubai, the international hub of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), everything seems possible. Mountains have been moved to create archipelagos of islands that fan into a map of the world off the coast. Man made canals surround hotels and an artificial ski slope allows shoppers to escape sweltering desert temperatures.
The breadth of Dubai’s vision was showcased again this year, when construction of the world’s tallest building — an 800-metre structure that looms over the city — was completed.
But behind the extravagant projects are millions of unskilled and semi-skilled migrants who lack basic labour rights. The title of this Human Rights Watch report, Building Towers, Cheating Workers, says it all.
So when the first ripples of the great financial crisis hit, it was no great surprise that migrant construction workers bore a heavy portion of the costs.
Indian migrant worker Ani is all too familiar with these costs. In the small village of Sreekariyam in the southern Indian state of Kerala, he is sitting with his five-year-old daughter, Anishma. It’s a precious moment for Ani, who has been working in the Gulf for most of her life.
The 38-year-old labourer moved to Oman nine years ago to support his family. The money he sends back has built a new home for his mother, father and daughter. The old mud brick house with low ceilings and a dirt floor is still standing next to the new concrete structure.
It’s a reminder that Ani has improved his family’s life but it’s come at a high personal cost.
Like many migrant workers, Ani paid a Keralan agent AU$1200 to work in Muscat, the dusty, arid capital of Oman. He was promised a daily wage of AU$24 and good working and living conditions.
Compared to the AU$4.80 he was able to earn each day in Kerala, the Muscat deal sounded fantastic. On arrival, however, Ani learnt his daily salary would actually be AU$19 and that he would be sharing a room with nine others in a labour camp. It took him six years to repay the agent’s fee.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 his wage was reduced to AU$14.50. He wasn’t able to send home money for two months and couldn’t send his daughter to school. So he borrowed money from family and friends in the Gulf and in Kerala to pay Anishma’s school fees.
Now Ani thinks he will have to work in Muscat for another 15 to 20 years. "I’m sorry to stay there, I miss my family, especially my daughter. I miss my home," he tells newmatilda.com.
It’s a common story, according to S. Irudaya Rajan from the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Kerala, which recently completed a research project on the impacts of the financial crisis on South Asian workers in the Gulf.
CDS estimates more than 9 million South Asians have moved to the Gulf in recent decades. Indeed, migration has been so significant that expats now make up 95 per cent of the UAE’s labour pool according to Human Rights Watch.
India is the biggest exporter of workers to the Gulf — more than two million originate from the coconut tree-lined streets of Kerala alone. Understandably then, when the financial crisis hit, Indian politicians feared a flood of return migration and a drop in remittances.
The reality however isn’t that simple. Although the CDS research found that approximately 140,000 Indians (61,000 of whom were Keralites) returned home because of the crisis, the most widely felt effect was salary cuts.
"I did a study in 2001 in the UAE and found that many companies were not paying salaries. The crisis only aggravated the workers’ problems in the Gulf," Rajan says. "People will use the crisis to say, ‘Look, I have no money to pay your salary, I have no money to give you a return ticket, I have no money to pay your son’s tuition fees’."
While some migrants have been able to find jobs in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, states where the impact of the financial crisis has been lighter, others, Rajan says, are stuck in limbo.
"Most of the people who’ve lost jobs in the Gulf are staying there, maybe without papers, waiting for amnesty … because they don’t want to face the people from whom they borrowed money [back home]. The number of those staying illegally is greater than those who’ve returned."
CDS is now lobbying South Asian governments to form a coalition to pressure Gulf countries into providing a minimum wage and better working conditions. Until this happens, Rajan says companies will continue to pit Indians against other South Asian migrants, like Pakistanis, Nepalese and Bangladeshis who are willing to work for less due to weaker currencies and more modest lifestyles.
But Nicholas McGeehan is sceptical that South Asian nations have the political will to effectively lobby Gulf countries for a minimum wage. McGeehan worked for an oil company in Abu Dhabi from 2002 to 2006. As oil was mined and shopping malls built, he listened to migrants’ stories of debt, cramped living conditions and low wages. In 2005 he started the website mafiwasta.com to campaign for workers’ rights.
In 2008, Indian migrants sent home US$52 billion, according to the World Bank. That’s equivalent to 4.2 per cent of India’s GDP. McGeehan believes the economic self-interest of South Asian nations will overrule their considerations for labour rights. Only through intense and sustained international pressure from the media and bodies like the UN, will Gulf countries like the UAE change, McGeehan believes.
"The UAE is very sensitive about its international reputation. There’s more scope to fight labour laws in the UAE than in Saudi Arabia as Dubai is dependent on international money."
In the UAE, semi-skilled and unskilled migrants work in fields such as construction and domestic help under labour laws which date from 1980. (In 2007, the UAE bowed to international pressure and released its draft labour laws but since then nothing has been done).
McGeehan argues that current labour laws are so biased against employees that semi-skilled and unskilled migrants are modern-day slaves.
"It’s about exerting a level of control which equates to levels of ownership. And there are five factors that are alive and well in the UAE that is equal to slavery."
"The first is the confiscation of passports which often happens on arrival. Then there’s the power system where the employee is entirely dependent on the employer through the sponsorship system. Workers have a lack of trade union rights, a complete lack of any access to justice and the biggest problem is that many are living under a debt burden."
"This all comes together to produce a labour system which has been either allowed to slip into such an extent of un-regulation that it equates to slavery, or, if you are more cynical, you would say it has been engineered that way."
In Dubai’s neighbouring emirate Sharjah, Indian businessman Mr. K.V. Shamsudheen has founded the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust to empower Indian migrants.
Over the last nine years, Shamsudheen has held more than 190 classes throughout the Gulf, offering financial advice to Indian migrants on how to regulate spending and invest wisely. He agrees the debt burden is one of the biggest hurdles facing South Asian migrants in the Gulf.
"When one person migrates abroad — especially to the Gulf — immediately their family’s lifestyle changes, and they [the family]start to spend very happily, without realising the sacrifice of the breadwinner," he told newmatilda.com.
Of more than 10,000 migrants surveyed by Shamsudheen, 34 per cent reported that they had no savings at all and only 5 per cent said they could maintain a comfortable lifestyle if they returned home.
"In my experience, about 60 per cent are in debt … many have debt more than 50 times their salary. There are three types of debt: bank credit with 8 per cent interest; credit card loan with 30 per cent or more interest; and loans from individual lenders with interest rates of 100 to 120 per cent."
The financial crisis has only made matters worse.
"I had a very sad experience. One fellow died here and social workers wanted to repatriate his body to India. The family said, ‘Please don’t send the dead body, the lenders will kick us from the house when they know the breadwinner is no more’."
Despite the risks, migration shows no signs of slowing. Even Ani, who was burnt by the financial crisis, will be leaving for Muscat in a few weeks time. With few employment opportunities in Kerala, he has no choice but to continue to support his family from Oman — regardless of the consequences.
While Gulf countries and companies reap the economic benefits of cheap labour with few repercussions, they have little motivation to change the laws surrounding the workplace.
It lies then with South Asian nations and the international community to decide whether the Gulf’s economic gains are worth the human costs.
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