Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Guest Workers: The Dark Side

The Senate, knowing a good thing when it sees one, has decided it wants some sort of “guest worker” program to ease the inflow of Latino immigrants coming up across the US-Mexican border. This has been done before, like with the bracero program of some decades back. This provides a source of cheap labor, and helps relax the tensions of the population explosion to our south. It’s a major problem: if we “seal” the border, if we could, the soaring numbers in Latin America, particularly Mexico, combined with horrendous poverty and unemployment down there, we’ll only be shortening the fuse of a real explosion. If we don’t, our own racial tensions may snap.

The appeal of the guest worker program, I believe, comes from observations of countries like Kuwait, the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even Iraq, where imported cheap labor is exploited. In those places, the imported workers are essentially held in detention camps, closely supervised, and paid at the bare minimum. Then they’re sent home. Cheap unorganized labor is always popular with employers.

Migrants and the Middle East: Welcome to the other side of Dubai
For the people who visit, it is a world-class centre of finance and tourism. But for the people who are building it - mainly labourers from the Indian subcontinent - the reality is very different.

Kim Sengupta reports on a rising tide of protest
Published: 28 March 2006

It is the fastest growing city on earth, a landscape of building sites full of workers feverishly constructing the highest, the largest and the deepest in the world. It's a neverland, rising out of the barren desert and fringed by beaches and a ski resort. There are no taxes. And it is the favoured destination of Britons wishing to work and play abroad.

Fifty per cent of the world's supply of cranes are now at work in Dubai on projects worth $100bn - twice the World Bank's estimated cost of reconstructing Iraq and double the total foreign investment in China, the word's third-largest economy.

But there is also a downside to the glistening towers that soar above the shopping malls, the six-lane highways and the world's only seven-star hotel with suites that can cost $50,000 (£28,000) a night. More than 2,500 workers at the site of the world's tallest building, the $800m Burj Dubai, went on strike last week in a country where striking - and unions - are illegal. It is the latest manifestation of the deep discontent felt by the semi-indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent who are building this glitzy oasis. Complaining of unpaid wages, and demanding better conditions, the labourers marched out of the cramped, stifling dormitories where they are corralled 25 to a room in violent protests which caused $1m worth of damage. They overturned cars and smashed up offices in a very graphic reminder of a problem which normally receives little publicity.

Almost everything is for sale in this part of the United Arab Emirates. Those investing in this frantic construction boom are convinced there will be no shortage of moneyed buyers. Among the developments springing up daily are Flower City, which aims to take over the international flower trade from Amsterdam; Hydropolis, an underwater hotel alongside another with revolving mountains; a Chess City with buildings in the shape of chess pieces; the $5bn Dubailand, which will become the world's biggest theme park - bigger than Manhattan and dwarfing Disneyland. Then there are the 300 manmade islands in the Arabian Gulf in the shape of different countries of the world ...

Like some other Arab countries, Dubai's oil reserves are dwindling and the ruling family, the Maktoums, want to reinvent their personal fiefdom as a financial and transport centre using the profits, while stocks last, from oil at $70 a barrel.

The state-owned Dubai Ports is voraciously buying up port complexes around the globe. There was a recent setback in the US when the company, being Arab, was deemed to be a security threat. It provoked outraged editorials in Dubai's government-controlled newspapers. But the reality is that the UAE, a bastion of rampant capitalism, cannot afford to alienate Washington. The search for acquisitions continues.

The one thing money cannot buy in Dubai, however, is UAE nationality. Around 80 per cent of the population are foreigners from no less than 160 different countries and the Maktoums appear to be prepared to let the foreigner-to-local ratio grow even wider. But however long the expatriates stay, they will not be allowed citizenship. Visas are tied to jobs, and there is always the risk of being thrown out when the contract ends.

The people most vulnerable to this are the very workers putting up Dubai's glossy edifices. Thirty-nine of them died in building-site accidents last year - with at least some of the casualties resulting from inadequate safety provisions. Another 84 committed suicide last year, up from 70 in 2004.

The average pay for an unskilled labourer is around $4 a day, and that is enough of a lure for the impoverished of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to flock to the UAE. The jobs are arranged through contractors and those who get them have to take out loans, often at exorbitant rates of interest, to pay for their passage. On arrival in Dubai, their passports are confiscated to prevent absconding while they are on contract.

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