Before landing in Dubai airport, I’d already made up my mind as to what I’d find there. Having read countless articles in the British press and seen the same boring holiday snaps of people standing in front of the Burj Al Arab and in colourful shopping malls, I had it all summed up: a culture-lacking concrete jungle host to thousands of shallow foreigners who confront their insecurities with designer labels; consumerism on steroids. More Louis Vuiton hijabs and Gucci loafers per square mile than anywhere else in the world, and fewer bus stops than Swarovski shops. Oh, and then there was the slave labour, perhaps best highlighted by Johann Hari of the Independent.
As well as Dubai’s gleaming exterior, a cousin of mine – a HR manager in the hospitality industry – was able to show me its dark underbelly, and in quite some depth. I managed to stay in employee accommodation, enabling me to spend a lot of time with workers from a range of professions: managers, porters, cleaners, the occasional maid, the lot.
Almost immediately, I learnt of the frustrations of many over double standards surrounding salaries. Emirati and European telephone operators were paid thousands of dirhams more than the Far Eastern or South Asian managers they worked several tiers under. A perception was also rife amongst foreign workers that the locals were lazy; that without the plentiful government handouts and legislation making it almost impossible to dismiss them from work, they would be ‘nowhere’, as described by one Bangladeshi parking attendant.
On a trip to Jumeira Beach Residence, home to a dizzying number of hotels, all miraculously operating at almost full capacity, our driver scowled as we drove past the Hilton. He’d worked there when he first came to the country and pointed them out to be amongst the worst employers he’d ever had, paying housekeeping attendants as little as 700Dh (£120) a month. This was nothing, however, compared to the manual labourers, as was to be confirmed shortly.
After a pleasant first evening on the beach, we travelled to an enclosed workers colony in Sonapur, which I was told was the place to go for seeing labourers – hundreds of thousands of them – the much neglected backbone of Dubai’s construction boom. After forty odd miles of pristine motorway, our car rolled up towards our destination and I felt as if I’d been transported to another world. We had to slow down to a crawl as our Toyota shuddered over the bumpy road. Manual labourers – those not lucky enough to gain employment at hotels or plazas – in their trademark blue uniforms, could be seen in their hundreds, unloaded off giant buses, sweat pouring off their brows. Like other Westerners sticking to air-conditioned rooms, I found it hard to believe they worked in excess of 12hour shifts in the sort of 40+ degree heat I couldn’t stand for 30 seconds.
I began snapping away with my camera and asking questions.
I learnt that as a result of the darkness of skin tone brought on by the baking temperatures, many undertook a most odd practice in the first days of annual leave. They locked themselves in their rooms for three to four days in the hope of becoming lighter, and thus returning to their native countries looking that bit more prosperous.
As we rolled around the camp, among the many things that struck me was the diversity. With residents originating from all over the world, dotted amongst the crowds you could see shalwar kameezes and colourful kurtas, beards, turbans – both Sikh and Islamic – dhotis and lungis, as well as crosses and Hindu symbols on chains. United by their shabby working conditions and desperation, they seemed to have little time for the silly religious and ethnic rivalries we’re so used to. Just before sunset, at almost every corner we turned we could see tape-ball cricket matches being played in the dirt by this refreshingly random assortment of ethnicities; an affordable yet fulfilling form of enjoyment. It is these entertainment-starved supporters that keep international cricket alive in the United Arab Emirates, with India-Pakistan clashes most heavily supported.
With such diversity, there was cultural exchange of all sorts. Alongside the ability to cook a great variety of dishes, any given worker could tell you how to swear at a person’s mother in five different tongues. To my surprise, many of the Arab hotel employees back at my residence in fact spoke fluent Urdu, and my cousin’s Emirati boss pronounced Punjabi words with such perfection it left me envious.
I came to discover that the raised ground we passed just before entering this parallel universe was in fact Dubai’s main waste disposal landfill. When the wind turns westward a mighty stench swamps workers’ residence, where upwards of eight people tend to be crammed into a room. Many labourers are left with only salty water to drink and the average salary most can expect is around 900 dirhams (roughly £150) a month; a pittance in Dubai, where at the very buildings their tired, blistered hands built, one could easily spend as much on a three course meal. Owing to limited salaries, many have become prey to over-eager lenders, thoughtlessly taking out as many credit cards as are offered to them. I came across one dock worker at Jabal Ali port who’d somehow managed to rack up ten cards and now faced a lengthy jail sentence.
Not surprisingly, suicides aren’t uncommon, with just last month a worker plummeting from the 46th floor of the newly opened Burj Khalifa, only to be laughed at by others. And when not intentional, workers have been known to fall from the heights of partially built skyscrapers following fainting or heat stroke in blistering 40+ degree temperatures. Amongst other gruesome stories, some years ago a Sri Lankan housemaid hung herself in the ladies restrooms at Dubai International airport.
Likely owing to the desire of the country’s Royals not to turn off tourists, I was told new legislation has been introduced preventing employers to expect outdoors work between 12 noon and 2pm, the hottest part of the day. Much more, however, needs to be done; employee rights remain nigh on non-existent and criticism of an employer can not only get one thrown out of the country, but may also lead to a ban on ever entering the UAE again. Lower tier workers such as labourers and household maids are effectively owned by the companies and families they work for, trapped, often with their passports confiscated and impossible debts owed to dishonest agents that lured them into the country. Many are paid at will by their employers, if at all.
Whilst workers languish in cramped conditions, as you roam around the state, you can’t help but feel there are too many buildings hosting too few people. As I came to find out, cinemas for a start can regularly be found eerily empty. Partly as a result of unsustainable rates of building, the country took a massive economic hit last year as its artificially inflated property prices were given a hammering following the global downturn, only to be propped up by the more sensible rulers in neighbouring oil rich Abu Dhabi.
Having gone through all that however, let me surprise you by saying I understand why those with money would want to live here, Muslims in particular. The crime rate is incredibly low; you can walk home at 2am on the spotless roads with your family without fear of bumping into drunkards or morons of any sort. Ignoring the odd unsightly skyscraper and the feeling that everything seems a little, well, unsustainable, almost every building you walk past leaves you amazed in some way or another. The skyline is dotted with beautifully made mosques and, in this Islamophobia free zone, no one cringes when you ask for directions to one. Very much like central London, on one trip to a local super market you can bump in to people of twenty different nationalities, except they don’t seem so miserable. There are churches too, huge ones. And fountains. Who doesn’t love fountains?
You can find every Western food outlet you’ve grown up with and more; except here, it’s all halal. No limitation to the veggie delight or fillet-o-fish – as awesome as they are – at McDonalds. No more tedious scanning of crisp packets for animal rennet every time you’ve stopped over at the petrol pump. Liberation. The ten year old inside me was alive and buzzing. Those of us who suffered incomplete childhoods following the revelation that pork gelatin lines packets of Haribo’s, chewy bars and marshmallows – and subsequently discovered that rare halal and Kosher variants generally taste like cardboard – can here rejoice. With several daily packets of the good stuff, I certainly had my fill in Dubai.
All this, however, comes with a price. In order to enjoy yourself in this adult wonderland, this city of illusions, you have to constantly push all memory of the workers to the back of your head. Family friends I spent an afternoon with told me they tried not to think about it. For those who care, there’s of course also an epic cultural void. There are only so many gazillion storey buildings, Burger Kings, air-conditioned bus shelters, diamond encrusted phone covers and gold plated one-of-a-kind Ferraris some of us can stand. As much as I enjoyed some of it, I fear if I were to stay there for a lengthy period of time, the shiny stuff would lose its novelty and I’d become quite bored. I picture myself panicked, running around looking for things that don’t hide beneath a layer of glitter: tattered books, art galleries and random crumbling theatres I’d never bother going to were they in London.
During my last night in the Gulf state, a Filipino hotel worker I befriended came running up to me with a bag. In it were two gifts, a colourful pot and a toy camel for my sister; nothing too expensive, but no doubt a sizeable chunk of her pitiful salary. The generosity of the underprivileged never ceases to amaze. Were Dubai’s Royals to take a leaf out of her book – treat workers with dignity, and maybe let her bankrupt mother out of jail, I’d feel a lot better about visiting next time.
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