Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Migrant laborers build Arabian Metropolis :: San Jose Mercury News
Al Hamed gets more international coverage

The Al Hamed construction labor camp is a hardscrabble jumble of battered trailers, where 7,800 laborers sleep, cook meals, and kneel to pray in an outdoor pavilion of corrugated tin.

The camp lies on Dubai's desert outskirts, out of view of the wealthy foreigners in the Gulf shore skyscrapers and the tourists thronging to mall boutiques like Prada and Gucci.

The workers in this camp, however, know the city's luxurious attractions. They built them, on salaries that range from $135 to $400 a month.

Despite their paltry wages, and despite the tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues pouring into the United Arab Emirates, laborers sometimes have trouble coaxing their employers to pay up. Three to five months without pay is common. Some say they have not seen salaries in a year or longer.

In the past, the docile immigrant work force had little redress. But this year, thousands have walked off construction sites, blocking roads, marching in protest to the Labor Ministry or simply refusing to work.

"Any worker who doesn't get paid should go on strike," said a 33-year-old Indian man visiting the Dubai Court's labor section who gave his name only as Zia, for fear of being fired and deported for speaking to a reporter. "You have to go on strike, because it is successful."

Zia was one of a dozen laborers filing grievances last month for as much as six months' back pay.

The protests have galvanized the federal Labor Ministry into cracking down on the offending companies, saying they are tarnishing the reputation of the country. . . .
All this should be familiar to those who follow the news in the UAE.

The following has received less attention. Picking up where we left off:
The protests have galvanized the federal Labor Ministry into cracking down on the offending companies, saying they are tarnishing the reputation of the country just as it negotiates a free trade agreement with the United States. Workers' rights are a critical factor in those talks.
. . .
Human Rights Watch and the State Department have criticized the Emirates and other Gulf countries as centers of human trafficking and worker exploitation. In Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch in 2004 said some Asian migrants worked in "slavery-like conditions."

The State Department last month upgraded its assessment of the Emirates and Qatar, but they remain on a watch list. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait still face sanctions that can only be waived by the president.

The Emirates has a big impetus to treat its workers better. The free trade pact it is negotiating with the United States stands to make this business-savvy country even more wealthy. Dubai is a duty-free trading hub, with some of the world's busiest air and sea ports. Washington has already signed free trade pacts with Bahrain and Oman that remain to be ratified by Congress.

Holding up the deal are U.S. demands that would give workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively, Alkhazraji acknowledged. He said trade unions could have huge economic consequences for the Emirates, perhaps slowing the building boom while radicalizing the docile work force.
The irony for these workers is that if they are given more bargaining power many of them will lose their jobs. At higher wages the UAE would substitute in obtaining its construction workers from more other countries with a more skilled workforce.

Question to self: What are foreign worker rights in Iraq? Where do most of the foreign construction workers there come from?

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