Panorama reporter Ben Anderson interviews Almass Pardiwala, one of the first recruitment agents to speak out about the treatment of immigrant construction workers in Dubai.
Ben Anderson spent three months investigating migrant workers rights
How did you start sending workers to Dubai from India?
Initially the idea was we sent people here to look forward to a better tomorrow. They would earn more than what they were getting at home. Since their accommodation was provided they would definitely save on the rent and we thought, they would be able to send a substantial amount back home, which would help them to save something for the future, or at least their next generation. They could better themselves economically and have a better lifestyle.
When did you first start getting the impression that things were not as good for the workers as you thought they were?
When I started coming here I started talking to the workers, dealing with them, looking at the situation, I visited a few labour camps and I was appalled at the situation they were living in. That's when I realised that they are giving up their lives for a few dirhams (United Arab Emirates' currency). But human life is just not worth the few extra dirhams that they make.
Before they even arrive, they are in debt because they are charged a visa fee, could developers insist that fee is not charged? That their passports are not taken away or the workers are given the minimum wage?
Yes, of course, there are companies who could specifically mention that all the visa expenses, about 7,000 to 8,000 dirham (roughly £1600), are borne by the company themselves. That is the law. They are not legally in a position to charge any visa fees from the workers coming in.
But they do charge the workers
Sometimes they have to mortgage their land, their house, or whatever little ornaments their family has of value. Sometimes I have cases where they've even gone on and mortgaged the utensils the house has, you know, metals, they have mortgaged even that.
What, like pots and pans and cookers?
Everything! Everything! Land which has been in their family from centuries, maybe generations and just the lure that okay we'll go abroad and we'll make a better lifestyle for ourselves. It's a dream that, very honestly is a nightmare the moment they land here.
You said these things are against the law
All these things are against the law.
How did you first find out about this problem? You said before that you had received complaints from workers, and that they had disappeared...
After a lot of pressure I got an address of an official camp where our 80 people were there and believe me I was ashamed to call myself a human when I entered the camp. The camp was so bad, so, so bad. It was like walking into a stable where diseased animals would be put. There were 40 Indians and 40 Bangladeshis and they had three bathrooms and they had a whole line of stones outside the washrooms. I told these guys, why are you keeping these in the middle, why don't you move them aside, someone might trip over? They said no madam, these stones we've kept like this. This stone belongs to me, this stone represents so and so person. This is a queue for us to visit the washroom. We get an opportunity every three days to have a turn to have a bath. So that was the condition of the guys over there. According to law six people are supposed to be in a room, there were 12 of them 14 of them just cramped in like animals, there were no windows in the entire camp. They had no food, because they were not paid any salaries.
So how was their health?
It was terrible. I was with this guy who had his finger cut and it was full of pus and it was rotting. And I asked him why haven't you done anything? He said if I go to the doctor he wants 50 dirhams from me, I don't have five dirhams to eat, how am I going to pay the doctor 50 dirhams? There were people who didn't have shoes to wear. They had blisters on their feet that were infected and pus was just going through. Of course they were weak, they were losing weight, they had aged so terribly in the three months since they had left India. They were sure they were just going to die over here and the people back home were not even going to see them. There was this date orchard next to their camp and the gardener had a heart so at the end of the day whatever dates used to fall off the tree he would give to them and that's what they were eating when I first saw them. People don't even treat animals like this. These guys were worse than stray animals out on the street. And the authorities, this was in Ras Al Khaimah, the neighbouring emirate, knew about it - the workers had demonstrated out on the road - so the immigration authorities were aware what was going on.
How did you feel at that moment because you and the men were convinced everyone was coming here for a better life?
Shattered. A dream shattered. Or an illusion shattered at that point of time. These people were totally disillusioned and they had no hope at all. They were shouting and screaming, but nobody was willing to hear them.
At that point did you think that the situation you were in was just a one off?
I found scores of people with the same story. The only difference was that they had nobody who could put forward their story for them. They were in an unknown land, the language was unfamiliar to them, they didn't know the rules and regulations and they didn't have money or power. There was nobody who was trying to do anything for them. There were just these guys going 'shoo- come tomorrow. Nothing we can do for you'. I went to these places I realised no this is not an isolated case this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Are the workers afraid to complain?
Yes they are. The first thing the company will say is get out of my camp and where do they go then? It's not like they are going to be able to go to a guesthouse and spend a night. They are not going to be able to sleep under a banyan tree. Also their documents are in the company's hands.
So what can you do?
I've yet to come across a successful solution. The maximum you can do is get someone from the media to talk, get some articles printed and pressurise the company into solving the matter. Which I seriously feel is very unfair to the workers. They are the people responsible for building this country. They are the ones treated like shit, like slaves most of the time. I have had workers tell me that they have been horsewhipped when they tried to open their mouths or protest. Whips have actually been removed and hit on them. As far as we know slavery is extinct right?
Do you really think slavery is an accurate term?
Right now they don't call them slaves they call them employees and they give them visas but they are almost bound as slaves with almost no rights at all. Slaves were actually bought and sold, these guys are so-called employed, but what rights do they have? What rights are made available to them in any kind of a situation? I think it's zilch.
When we in the West think of Dubai...
When Westerners see Dubai they see the racecourses and fireworks over the Atlantis. Even if 10% of the money that was burnt up over the Atlantis was put up for the workers I'm sure people would sleep with a clearer conscience - if they had one.
What do you say to the argument this is just globalisation - getting people from markets where the wages are very low?
Fine but why the hell can't you pay them the wages that have been promised to them? They are not asking you to pay them the standard wages that a person in a developed country gets.
You often hear people from the West say that the accommodation looks bad to us, the salary sounds low to us, but for them it's fine, for them it's a good salary?
I would suggest you take a visit to some of the villages in India and come and have a look at them before you form an opinion on that. I don't think it is an argument unless you have actually seen both sides of the coin. I would suggest that they are behaving like ostriches with their heads in the sand. They may not have a tiled bedroom or a Jacuzzi, but it's not inhuman like this, I can bet that it's not as bad as this.
Lots of people from all over the world are investing in property here, coming here on holiday, is there anything they could do for the workers?
Just ask can I look at your labour camp? If you are going to buy one apartment your going to see it 10 times from 10 different angles. Just ask the company; can I look at your labour camp? I'm not telling you to say; I want a written statement from each of the workers to say I'm happy, just say can I have a look at your labour camp? See how they will jump then.
And what do you think their reaction would be if they were taken to an average labour camp?
If the person has a conscience I'm sure they would never ever think of buying any property out here. Those who made an effort would be appalled by conditions, they would be appalled by the inhuman treatment these people go through. They are working for 10 hours, 12 hours - then they are commuting one and a half to two hours. They are cooking in primitive conditions - whatever they can manage to cook at 2130 2200 at night when they are dog tired - whether it's hygienic, whether it's nutritious, nothing, just having something to fill their stomachs and fall asleep. Next day they get up at 0400, maybe gulp down a cup of tea. Their health is going to disintegrate. If someone from the West, maybe some kind of organisation, maybe authorities concerned pressurise the government into implementing the rules that are there in place I'm sure things will be much better and I'm sure humanity will be in a better condition for the efforts made.
Have you come across any workers who have come out here and have made a better life for themselves and their families?
Very, very few. I will not lie and say I've never come across any. There are a few companies which even though the workers have paid visa fees, at least they give them salaries and have been reasonably good. There are a few good companies but I can count them on my fingers. But yes, there have been a few, which is probably what keeps these guys going, the few success stories that they hear back in their village, they think, okay, if he did it, maybe I will be lucky enough to have the same thing happen to me.