Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Blood money

The construction industry must not turn a blind eye to the exploitation of its workers in Dubai, says Hadi Ghaemi.

Engineering, architectural and contracting firms from around the world are competing to get a piece of Dubai's construction boom. The growth of the city is extraordinary, a testament to Dubai's seething energy and dynamism. But there's a dark side.

Construction activity is carried out on the backs of more than half a million migrant workers - poor, mostly illiterate, and recruited from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Construction companies employ these labourers under temporary contracts, typically for three years. They manage almost every aspect of their workers' lives, providing a food allowance, basic healthcare and housing.

Last month Human Rights Watch released a report, UAE: Building Towers, Cheating Workers, in which it documents routine abuses against migrant construction workers by their employers, including non-payment of wages, the withholding of passports and hazardous working conditions. In addition, it highlights the failure of government agencies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to hold employers accountable.

A few days before the report's publication, the UAE government decreed a series of reforms in line with our recommendations. This is a major step forward. However, it is worth remembering that 27 years on, the UAE has still to enforce its 1980 minimum wage law.

I met with several construction business executives to discuss the report's findings. The managing director of a European company that has been doing business in the region for decades described the situation as 'modern day slavery'.

He said that thousands of his workers arrive with loans in the region of $2,000 to $3,000 (£1,000-£1,500) that they pay to unscrupulous agents to get visa sponsorship. He also admitted that his company confiscates the passports of newly arrived workers and pays them a mere Dhm20 (£2.25) for a 12-hour working day.

Nevertheless, he insisted that his company did not break any laws. It is simply keeping up with 'customary practices'.

'How could we make a buck if we raise wages on our own, but competitors are not obligated to do the same? What we need is a minimum wage law, ' he said.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of construction business in the UAE is the complete lack of transparency about industrial accidents. The embassies of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh returned the bodies of 880 migrant construction workers to their home countries in 2004, yet the UAE government can account for only 34 site-related deaths.

The UAE government must do its part in implementing and enforcing a labour code that ends the ruthless exploitation of its labour force. Companies must also ensure they are not complicit in exploitative practices, and governments must clamp down on agencies that recruit their citizens and residents into slave-like conditions.

Civil engineers, architects, and business executives who reap profits from Dubai's development should ensure basic respect for the human dignity of all their workers.

Hadi Ghaemi is a researcher for Human Rights Watch

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.