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06:19 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 07:19 UK

Dubai: From riches to rags

Ben Anderson
BBC Panorama reporter

Just say the word Dubai and the images appear: impossible glass structures glistening in the year-round sun, perfect man-made beaches, yachts, private helicopters, malls and spreads of food that would satisfy Roman emperors - all the things huge amounts of new money can buy.

And yet for me these images are the opposite of what should come to mind.

Ben Anderson and migrant workers

Having spent the last three months travelling there, I no longer think of the seven star Burj Al Arab hotel when I think of Dubai, but of emaciated, wretched men, lining up for buses before the sun has risen, resigned to the fact that their hard day's work wouldn't earn them enough to buy a round of coffee here. The branding of Dubai has to be one of the greatest PR triumphs of the past 20 years.

It works out incredibly well for the developers - they can charge first world fortunes for the dream villas and apartments, but pay third world salaries to the men actually building them.

Poor and illiterate

Many in Dubai say that this is just globalisation working, and that while the lives of the workers, and the salaries they are paid, look bad to us, to them, where they come from, it's good.

This excuse doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

The story of Dubai's immigrant construction workers shocks and depresses in several different stages. The poor and often illiterate men, who come here in their millions from the Indian sub-continent, are getting exploited from so many different angles that it's sometimes hard to know who to be angry at.

It all starts in their home countries - often India or Bangladesh - where local recruitment agents promise them high salaries and generous overtime payments.

In Pictures: Slumdog workers

Migrant workers walk past luxury developments in Dubai

But often they also charge a "visa" or "transit" fee, averaging 200,000 taka, or £2,000 ($2,980).

This is supposed to be illegal.

The workers pay the fee because they believe the figures they've been promised. In most cases, it will take them the entire two-to-three year contract for them just to pay back that fee and break even.

It often takes that long because many developers, or their sub-contactors pay shockingly low wages - often less than £120 ($178.83) a month, for, on average, a 10-hour a day, six-day working week.

Rivers of stinking waste

We followed dozens of workers back to their "labour camps" where they cooked rice and potatoes (they can only afford meat or fish two or three times a month) in filthy rooms equipped with the most basic gas hobs.

In one camp sewage had leaked out from toilet blocks, and there was so much of it that the workers had built an entire network of stepping-stones just to get to their accommodation blocks.

"The dream," as one Indian recruitment agent told me, "soon turns into a nightmare the moment they arrive."

Upon arrival, they are then bussed to their labour camp, where they will share a room with at least six other workers for the duration of their time in Dubai.

Jamie Oliver

If they are given contracts, they are often not worth the paper they are written on, and collective bargaining and trade unions are illegal in Dubai anyway.

The developments we investigated are both enthusiastically endorsed by a long line of celebrities, who allow themselves to be described as "ambassadors".

England footballer Michael Owen, cricketer Freddie Flintoff and golfer Sam Torrance endorse developments by the First Group in Dubai's Sports City.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, golfers Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, and Sergio Garcia are all ambassadors for Jumeirah Golf Estates, which will be home to the $20m "Race to Dubai," the richest tournament in the golfing world.

The master developer of Jumeirah Golf Estates is a company called Leisurecorp, which owns Turnberry and has a stake in Troon.

'Like a prison sentence'

We looked hard for a single example of good practice on two different developments, interviewing dozens of workers employed by many different companies - some British, some owned by the Dubai government.

But I didn't find a single exception, not one worker who hadn't paid a visa fee, not one who was being well paid (the highest monthly salary I heard of was being paid to a skilled crane operator- approximately £220 ($327) a month), not one who could eat well or was free to go home if he chose to.

They all said they were much worse off than they had been back at home.

"We are doing slavery," said one worker. "We feel we are in jail, it's like a prison sentence. This is how I feel. I am helpless. What can I do?"

Nick McGeehan, who runs Mafiswasta, one of the few NGOs working on behalf of the immigrant construction workers, is not surprised. I asked him what role we were playing in this, as property buyers, or as one of the million plus British tourists that visited Dubai last year.

"You're contributing, directly or indirectly, to the enslavement of a migrant workforce. That's a difficult pill to swallow, but when you look at the evidence that's a fact."

And what about the celebrities who endorse these developments, some of whom told us they sought, and got, re-assurances that the workers were being treated well.

"It's not enough to say that. At best that's naive and at worst that's negligent."

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

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.

Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires is on BBC One, Monday 6 April at 8.30pm.

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Migrant worker 'fixer' speaks out (Monday, 6 April 2009, 10:48 GMT |  Panorama )

Human Rights Watch report
Mafiwasta workers' rights advocacy

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