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Dark side of the Dubai dream

Migrant workers in Dubai

By Lila Allen
Panorama

It is a place in the sun for over a million of us who holiday there every year. It boasts a host of luxury apartments that has celebrities flocking. But behind the glitz and glamour of Dubai often lies a murky world of exploitation and an immigrant work force living on the breadline.

Hit by the credit crunch, Dubai's economy has taken a turn for the worse reliant as it is on tourism, financial services and real estate. For those labouring to make the Dubai dream a reality, building the homes for the rich and famous, are facing greater pressures than ever.

Dubai night view

Ben Anderson investigates the working conditions for some construction workers

But despite the slump, the pressure on would-be buyers is still healthy. A Panorama reporter posing as a potential buyer and kitted out with a secret camera, met with a company endorsed by celebrities. Footballer Michael Owen is a paid ambassador along with England cricketer Freddie Flintoff and golfer Sam Torrance.

A sales representatives from The First Group said now was a great time to buy property. She also allayed any concerns about the wellbeing of the company's construction workers.

Offering a purchase that would see a £438,000 apartment rise to £1.33m in just 10 years, the sales reps also said they believed the workers were happy to be there.

"It's much more difficult to earn some money in Pakistan or India, so people actually save by living for free in proper housing, eating for free in the canteen, using the transport and sending something to their families," she said.

It is the promise of a land of opportunity that has brought an estimated one million migrant workers to Dubai. Most come from areas of extreme poverty in the Indian sub-continent where they are easy prey for recruitment agents. Paying up to £2,000 to make the trip, the sum often has to be borrowed or family land sold in the belief that within 18 months the debt can be repaid.

30p overtime

Instead on arriving in Dubai they are met with shanty town conditions hidden from public view. In a country that penalises journalists reporting stories which negatively reflect the economy or insult the government with massive fines and even imprisonment, it was important to maintain a low profile.

Andrew Flintoff and Michael Owen
Ambassadors for a development: Freddie Flintoff and Michael Owen

In secret, we followed a group of workers home from work. Employed by The First Group's sub-contractors United Engineering Construction, they were working on a development due to be finished in June ready for England striker Michael Owen to move in.

Back at the worker's camp we were soon rumbled and asked to leave. Returning over the next few days we managed to speak to some of the men living there on condition of anonymity.

They told a grim tale. None had been paid the money they were promised by the recruitment agencies, and many said they couldn't afford to eat properly, living on a diet of potatoes, lentils and bread. Average salaries are often no more than £120 a month. This for a six-day week, often working up to 12-hour shifts. One company paid approximately 30p an hour for overtime.

UNEC said that its minimum basic salary and overtime rate were significantly higher and that employees only worked 12 hour days in exceptional circumstances. It said its workers were fully aware of their proposed terms of employment before travelling to Dubai and that it "wholly disapproved" of workers paying recruitment agents. It said it only recruited through one agency in India, but the workers we spoke to came from elsewhere.

The First Group said its own checks had confirmed that the pay and conditions at the camp were legal.

One of Dubai's biggest new developments is The Jumeirah Golf Estates, which will host the climax of the European Golf championship in November. The main developer is Leisurecorp, which also owns the championship golf course at Turnberry in Scotland, and has a stake in Troon.

Jumeirah Golf Estates has attracted an incredible array of celebrities who are named as ambassadors on its website, including TV chef Jamie Oliver and golfers Greg Norman, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia.

Camp overcrowding

Once again we followed workers back to their accommodation. This time they were employed by one of Dubai's biggest construction firms Arabtec, to work on a part of the development that had been sold to a sub-developer, but the picture was familiar.

Living quarters for the labourers

After an hour-long journey back to their gated and guarded labour camp, the men agreed to speak to us if their identities were kept secret.

"The latrines are so filthy we cannot use them, we are so disgusted. The roads are full of garbage and waterlogged. Living and moving about here is a great problem. We suffer greatly," one of the workers told us.

We decided to find out for ourselves.

Armed with a secret camera we sneaked into the camp to be met with the smell of raw sewage. Sewage had leaked out all over the camp, and workers had to create a network of stepping stones to cross it and get back to their accommodation blocks. One toilet block had no water supply and the latrines were filled with piles of raw faeces.

Documents obtained by us showed that a month previous to our visit, the Dubai authorities described the sewage situation at the site as critical. Arabtec had been fined 10,000 dirhams, approximately £2,000, for allowing sewage to overflow into workers' accommodation.

Downturn

The authorities also reported that the camp was overcrowded with 7,500 labourers sharing 1,248 rooms with poor ventilation.

But with the downturn in the economy, the workers feel less able to complain as the consequences are graver.

"They are telling, now that you have come, you stay and work. If we find any mistake in your work then finish - back to Bangladesh. We will no longer keep you," one Arabtec worker told us.

Earning just £140 a month for a six day week, he hasn't told his family at home about the reality of his situation.

"We have not told them because if we do, our wives and our children will start crying, so we have told them we are doing well."

The Dubai Municipal government said regular inspections are carried out of migrant workers' living conditions and fines levied for substandard housing.

Arabtec said it did not accept that there were unsanitary conditions at any of its camps' toilets. It blamed the workers, saying, despite training, their "standards of cleanliness and hygiene are not up to your or our standards" and that the toilet block we had filmed in may have been a block that was meant to be closed.

It now says it is concerned about the situation, and despite originally blaming the problems on a nearby sewage plant, admitted sewage in the camp was a constant problem it was battling to resolve. They said the camp was a temporary one and all workers will be moved out in eight months.

It said that its wage levels were the Dubai norm and the basic working week was 48 hours and overtime was paid for any hours over that.

In a statement to Panorama, Jamie Oliver Enterprises said they were disturbed by the issues raised: "When we started work with our partner in Dubai, we were informed of their strict contractual guidelines which are in place with sub-developers to protect the rights of migrant workers and provide for good living and working conditions. While we are satisfied that the sub-contractors employed directly by our partner to work on Jamie Oliver projects meet the regulatory requirements and are fair, we have been given further assurances that the claims made by employees working on a sub-developer's project will be investigated."

Panorama has also been told that Jamie Oliver now wants to come up with more accurate wording to describe his business relationship with Jumeirah Golf Estates.

In the meantime, the celebrity chef's name has been removed from the list of ambassadors on the company's website.


Here is a selection of your comments.

I've lived in Dubai and now live in Doha and the situation is really depressing. All the workers are so low paid, the construction workers get the worst of it but cab drivers, shop and restaurant workers and service people get a bad deal too. I've spoken to many who were tricked into coming to the Middle East and are now trapped due to visa regulations and sponsorship laws (as well as not being able to afford a flight home). Businesses here totally take advantage, yet everything costs about the same as in the West - how does that add up?
Jill, Doha, Qatar

I totally agree, being an expat here in Dubai for the past three years, I must say I agree completely. Dubai is a brilliant place for the rich but the poor have very little to reap from it. The poverty gap in Dubai is massive, and I myself am quite disgusted in how the public treat the low pay workers. For instance, there are security guards constantly asking the labourers to leave the public beach when it is crowded by tourists. I find this totally unacceptable as a public beach should be accessible to all.

The bottom line is, I find that Dubai is so concerned about creating this "fairy-tale" image and you will find this place to be very materialistic and pretentious- don't get me wrong, a bit of bling in a city is fun - but when it is at the expense of others it gets ugly.
Sue , Dubai, UAE

Unfortunately none of this is necessary new. All over the world, and throughout history, it has been the hard work of underpaid, exploited and desperate people i.e. (modern) slaves that raised skyscrapers and built big cities for the enjoyment of a few selected people. This is yet another proof of modern slavery. However, I do wonder which actions the so called celebrities will take to tackle this issue, now that they know for sure what's really going on under the radars?
Simon B, Bedford

I am a Sri Lankan, My father was the head of foreign employment bureau in Sri Lanka. My experience was sitting in his office as a child and the complaints I used to hear people make. Thousands of house maids employed in middle eastern countries never get paid what they are promised. And a large proportion of them return home with no payment. Either they have been unreasonably penalised for minor mistakes they have done or blatantly told to get lost because they asked for money.
Dr Channa Hewamadduma, UK, Sheffield

The CEOs of companies where their labour force is used and abused should be placed firmly behind bars or worse - live in the conditions provided in the labour camps.
Shiraz, Dubai, UAE

Facts and figures are worse than highlighted in the story. It's not only Dubai, but the same story is everywhere in the country. It is good for the BBC to highlight such things, local media can not highlight these issues.
Naveen Kumar, Dubai UAE

So why can't the celebrities who are ambassadors do something about this by not endorsing these projects. or are we living in a very selfish world, where the life of the downtrodden does not matter to us?
Ayesha, Chennai

Well, being born and bought up in India, we have always seen numerous cases of such sad stories. Selling the house/farmland/jewellery and leaving behind the family - going to Gulf countries to work as a cleaner and other low-profile labour jobs. Living in a small rooms which have satellite TV connections for Indian regional channels, eating basic self-made Indian food - saving every penny and sending it back to home. There are still many families out there living happily thinking with pride that their family member is working in a foreign country. It is nice to know BBC is trying to uncover such stories and make Western countries know of their pitiable state.
Ram, Bath, UK

A friend of mine recently returned from Dubai having quit her job there in disgust at the way that the poorer immigrant workers were treated. According to her, it is not only the big corporations who exploit said workforce: the expat Britpack is not without criticism, employing such workers as servants for the most meagre of pittances- wage slavery by any other name. The Brits there even have a derogatory quasi-racist nickname for these immigrants: they call them "Yik-Yaks", and treat them with contempt and disdain.
Simon, Southampton

Having lived and worked in Dubai, everyone out there knows that Dubai is built on the modern day equivalent of slave labour. It is not a secret, is not hidden, and anyone who tells you different is lying. Whether you choose to ignore it or not is up to you, but do not pretend not to be complicit, when their poor wages subsidise your lavish lifestyle, gas guzzling car, swimming pool, school fees etc etc Hopefully now with the recession even the Brits are realising it is no longer the safe haven cash-cow that they think they are entitled to, by luck of birth.
Anon, Glasgow

I have been a frequent recent visitor to Dubai and to Sharjah. There are certainly the conditions you describe. Further, there is also the issue of the "servant class" - mainly made up of young girls where some of the stories and experiences can be shocking. Important too is the fact that similar conditions/experiences also exist in their home countries. However, I have seen examples in Sharjah of companies having a very different attitude to their workers. Accommodation camps with proper amenities, the provision of computing and internet facilities, medical care and more. There the workers (mainly South Asian) are able to keep in touch with family, get paid visits to return home and are treated in a humane way including better salaries than are available elsewhere.
Pol , London



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