Sunday, September 25, 2005

The New York Times turns the eyes of the world on Dubai. And it's not in the travel and tourism section.

Quotes (emphasis and links added):
The men were among 6,000 foreign laborers, most of them Indians and Pakistanis, who live in a desert work camp several miles outside of the city. All 6,000 had languished without pay for more than five months.

The protest was by no means the first of its kind here, but it was unprecedented in its scale and high profile, laying bare a Dickensian underworld of poverty and exploitation in the shadow of a gleaming city of high-rise buildings and luxury hotels.
. . .
The marchers, in overalls and hard hats, were impossible to ignore on Monday. They first went to the Ministry of Labor, in the heart of Dubai, and blocked a main artery into the city, snarling traffic. The protest surprised many - but far more astonishing was the government's response. Within hours of meeting with representatives of the workers, the labor minister, Ali bin Abdullah al-Kaabi, issued an unexpectedly tough ruling that shook many companies here to their roots.
. . .
It was the first time that the minister had singled out a company involved in a labor dispute. That the company is led by a prominent sheik,
Khalid bin Ahmed al-Hamed, and the workers were builders on a major construction project, only heightened the significance of the ruling. By Friday the workers had been paid.
. . .
The United Arab Emirates has earned the dubious distinction of having some of the worst labor conditions. Human Rights Watch has cited the country for discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Many foreign workers, especially women, face intimidation and violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of employers, supervisors, and police and security forces, the rights group said, while children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.

Ultimately, the workers have few rights. Visa sponsors and employers usually confiscate their passports and residency permits when they sign on, restricting their freedom of movement and their ability to report abuse. Few can leave the country without the permission of their employers, leaving them in "situations that amount to forced labor," Human Rights Watch reported. Employers can block them from working elsewhere in the country for six months if they resign or are fired.
Economists are known for risking social unacceptability. So, for instance, my view is that - provided workers know what they are getting into - their working conditions are a matter of choice. Who are we to judge whether the poor should accept Dickensian working conditions in return for being paid for accepting them? (Not that it isn't a good question why Dubai would want to be in the same boat as economists in terms of social acceptability.)

While economists agree our realm of expertise is not ethics, we don't have any trouble agreeing that deceit and broken pledges are wrong, all the more so when it is the rich taking advantage of the poor. What is the remedy? One part of the remedy is for the government to continue what it started in its actions towards Al Hamed.

But another part of the solution is for the government to give workers the right to change jobs. Workers could still enter into long term contracts with firms, but it would up to the firm to pursue legal remedies if a worker walked out on such a contract. In order to enforce the contract, the firm would have to prove they had lived up to their half of the bargain. If the consequences of not paying your workers on time is that you lose them, you'll be more likely to keep your promises.

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Anonymous dark horse said...

Somestimes the true "gulf" in the region is that which exists between attitudes...

2:06 PM  
Blogger Scott of Hybla said...

I'm glad to see the labor minister ruled on behalf of the construction workers. I wish I could encourage others in authority to investigate the HRW allegations and prosecute instances of "violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of employers, supervisors, and police and security forces."

Nathan Newman weighs in:

10:34 PM  

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