Labor Protests Become More Common in Recession-Hit Dubai

January 27, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

LABOR CONDITIONS: Asian workers walking in Sonapur camp in Dubai (file photo, 2006). Seventy ringleaders were arrested on Wednesday for organizing a strike against low wages paid by Arabtec construction company. Foreign workers in Dubai are forced to live in cramped, squalid so-called 'labor camps.'  (Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images)
LABOR CONDITIONS: Asian workers walking in Sonapur camp in Dubai (file photo, 2006). Seventy ringleaders were arrested on Wednesday for organizing a strike against low wages paid by Arabtec construction company. Foreign workers in Dubai are forced to live in cramped, squalid so-called 'labor camps.' (Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images)
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates —The buses arrived at the dusty labor camp to ferry close to 5,000 workers to a construction site nearby. For close to two weeks however, none of the workers boarded.

The stalemate between the employer, Arabtec, and the low-paid workers was finally broken on Wednesday however, when the police were called in to arrest 70 ringleaders of the strike.

In recession-hit Dubai, labor protests like the one this week are becoming increasing common. The problem has become more pronounced as smaller construction firms become unable to pay their workers for months.

Since many workers are forced to submit their passports to their employers, when an executive flees the country to escape the prison sentence that typically accompanies a debt default, tens of thousands are left stranded.

“These cases are far too common,” said one South Asian consulate employee, who declined to be named. “Protection for them is limited, but it’s improving.”

The men who built the majority of the gleaming skyscrapers and ultra-modern residences in Dubai often themselves live in makeshift camps in the choking industrial areas of the city.

The accommodations, informally known as labor camps, are often rudimentary dorms where men sleep eight to a room.

During the winter, it is common for rains to cause septic tanks to overflow and the camps become a squalid health hazard. During the summer, when temperatures soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, they can become death traps if they are not properly air-conditioned.

Workers typically earn as little as Dh 800 a month (US$220), yet the money they send to their families back home contributes 24 percent to the $50 billion a year India receives in remittances.

Human Rights Watch has long raised concern about the treatment of workers in the United Arab Emirates and the attention has spurred authorities here into action.

In a newly released report, announced at a press conference in Dubai on Wednesday, HRW highlighted the improvements that have been made, but said that more needed to be done.

The newly formed Dubai Police short-term labor inspection section was recently established to deal with the problem. On Tuesday, they announced that they had been able to repatriate 850 workers who had been unable to leave the country because their company had not given them return airfares. In the end, the company was ordered to come up with the Dh 850,000 (US$231,000) required.

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