- Category: Imperialism & War
- Created on Tuesday, 05 January 2010 13:11
- Written by LANDON THOMAS
This week the most recently proclaimed 'world's tallest building' officially opened with some fanfare in Dubai. This symbol of hubris stands in the center of the financial city-state that was officially bankrupted by the most recent economic crisis. But that is only an ironic aside compared to much less known story of how this monument to capital was built. (props to Eddie Laing who gathered this post:first dealing with economics, then with raw human misery.)
Dubai Opens a Tower to Beat All
By LANDON THOMAS Jr. January 5, 2010, New York Times
...The glittering celebration may have been an attempt by Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, to shift the focus from Dubai’s current economic troubles to a future filled with more promise.
All the same, the tower’s success by no means signals a recovery in Dubai’s beaten-down real estate market, where prices have collapsed by as much as 50 percent and many developers are having trouble finding occupants for their buildings.
With its mix of nightclubs, mosques, luxury suites and boardrooms, the Burj is an almost perfect representation of Dubai’s own complexities and contradictions. It will have the world’s first Armani hotel; the world’s highest swimming pool, on the 76th floor; the highest observation deck, on the 124th floor; and the highest mosque, on the 158th floor.
But in deciding to change the tower’s name from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa, in honor of the president of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Dubai revealed a rare streak of humility consistent with its diminished economic condition. Once the most proudly autonomous of Arab Emirates, Dubai has found that its financial troubles have made it more dependent on Abu Dhabi and more likely to be drawn closer into the federation.
“Dubai not only has the world’s tallest building, but has also made what looks like the most expensive naming rights deal in history,” said Jim Krane, the author of “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism.” “Renaming the Burj Dubai after Sheik Khalifa of Abu Dhabi — if not an explicit quid pro quo — is a down payment on Dubai’s gratitude for its neighbor’s $10 billion bailout last month.”
The opening festivities had the feel of a national holiday, with fireworks, parachute jumps and shooting streams of water from the world’s tallest fountain. (...)
* * * * * * * *
Building Towers, Cheating Workers
excerpt from Human Rights Watch report, November 11, 2006
Low wages are another of the main grievances of construction workers. The government has been unwilling to put in place a minimum wage, despite a mandate in law dating from 1980 (this is discussed further in the section "UAE Labor Law," below).
On March 21, 2006, nearly 2,500 workers at the OldTown commercial section of the Burj Dubai complex, where the world's tallest tower is under construction, protested their working conditions and low wages. The protest turned violent after the workers rioted at the end of their daily shift. The workers had been waiting for hours to be transported back to their labor camp. S. Kumar, an Indian worker who was present at the protest but did not participate in the rioting, told Human Rights Watch,
"I work at the Burj Dubai site. I earn 38 AED [$10.50] for eight hours of work daily. My pay is higher than workers who arrived recently because I have been with the company for 11 years. New workers are paid 28 AED [$7.60] daily and they are unhappy about it."
On March 21, it was mostly the new workers who rioted. They were stressed because after we finish our shift, it takes over an hour to punch out. On that day, the buses were delayed for hours. The workers started to complain. The company's security forces started to harass them and abuse them verbally. This provoked the rioting. The new workers were demanding pay raises.
In another recent protest, thousands of workers for the Besix Company, a Brussels based construction conglomerate, staged a strike demanding better wages. On May 16, 2006, more than 8,000 Besix workers laid down their tools and refused to work until their employers met their demands. A striking worker told reporters,
"We will not go back to work until our demands are met. We are being paid $106 per month and all we demand is that we are paid at least $163 per month. The company has offered a raise to those who have been employed [by Besix] for more than 10 years, but that is the minority of people here. We do not accept that."
The government deported 50 Besix workers who refused to end their strike. Philippe Dessoy, deputy general manager of Besix's subsidiary, Six Construct, told Construction Week that "[a]round 50 were taken by police; they were not forced, they went willingly. They did not want to go back to work."
Confiscation of Passports
While employers in the UAE are prohibited from confiscating the passports of their employees, employers routinely do this, retaining the passports for the duration of their workers' employment, typically to ensure that the employees do not abscond. All of the 107 migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch (construction workers and others-see "Methodology," above), said that their employers had confiscated their passports upon their arrival in the UAE.
Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, assistant director of follow up and investigation at the Dubai Naturalization and Residency Administration, told Human Rights Watch that according to the law, "they [the employers] should not hold passports." But he justified the practice by saying, "sometimes workers lose their passports so the safest place to keep it is at the company offices." Maj. Aref Mohammad Baqer, deputy director of the Human Rights Department at Dubai Police, told Human Rights Watch that companies justify this as customary and also to protect their own interests:
"The companies say that holding of passports is part of the business culture. They justify it by saying it would prevent the workers from stealing money or trade secrets and information from the company. Also employers say that by holding on to their workers' passports, they can guarantee they will get a return on the money they invest on each worker in visa fees and other expenses."
UAE courts have specifically held this practice to be unlawful. In 2001, the Dubai Court of Cassation issued the following ruling:
"[I]t is not permitted for an employer to confiscate the passport of an employee and prevent him from his natural right to travel and move whatever the nature of the relationship that ties them together. Confiscating a passport from his owner is nothing but a method of the many methods that prohibit an employee from travel and this is ruled by the text of Article 329 of the civil procedure law that raises the cases in which preventing travel is permitted, and the condition that the order must be issued by a judge in accordance with the formal and practical procedures as defined by law."
By withholding workers' passports, employers exercise an unreasonable degree of control over their workers. Despite the fact that both government officials and UAE courts have reiterated the unlawfulness of this practice, the government has not taken any steps to put an end to it.
Safety and Health Hazards
Death and injury in site accidents
The extent of death and injury of migrant workers is one of the most troubling, if poorly documented, aspects of the construction sector in the UAE. As described below, there appear to be no official countrywide government figures on cases of death and injury of construction workers. The few figures available from government sources cover only Dubai, and even these figures appear to be well below the figures compiled by private sources. This discrepancy in numbers can be attributed in part to the extremely low incidence of companies reporting deaths and injuries to the government.
DubaiMunicipality recorded 34 deaths of construction workers at their workplaces in 2004 and 39 deaths in 2005. Independent research by a construction trade publication, Construction Week, found that a total of 880 migrant construction workers died in the UAE in 2004: 460 from India, 375 from Pakistan and approximately forty-five from Bangladesh. While the Construction Week report did not provide information regarding the cause of death so it is unclear how many were work-related accidents, an official with the Indian Community Welfare Committee, K. Kumar, told Construction Week that he believed up to 30 percent of the deaths of the Indians in the report were related to site accidents. The Construction Week investigation provided some breakdown of the information by emirate, citing Indian embassy and consular records of 292 Indian construction worker deaths in Dubai and the northern emirates and 168 in Abu Dhabi, so extrapolating from Kumar's 30 percent estimate would mean that of 138 Indians who died in site accidents in 2004, 88 were in Dubai and the northern emirates. Given that Dubai's construction boom far outpaces the rest of the northern emirates, it is difficult to reconcile the likelihood that a high proportion of these estimated 88 Indian deaths were in Dubai with the 34 worksite deaths officially reported there, for all nationalities.
An official at the Indian consulate in Dubai told Human Rights Watch that it has registered 971 death cases in 2005, of which 61 are registered assite accidents. Again, this contrasts sharply with the 39 deaths recorded that year by the Dubai government for all nationalities.
A serious health hazard faced by construction workers is the extreme climatic conditions. The mean maximum temperatures in the UAE during the months of April to September are well above 90oF (32oC), with humidity in excess of 80 percent. For the construction workers who spend the vast majority of their time working under such conditions, heat-related illnesses are a manifestation of dangerous working conditions. The heat and humidity are considered a health hazard especially during the months of July and August, when temperatures regularly peak above 100oF (38oC).
According to the Dubai chapter of the World Safety Organization, heat-related illness is the most important health issue facing construction workers. This includes heat-stroke as well as dehydration. As many as 5,000 construction workers per month were brought into the accident and emergency department of RashidHospital in Dubai during July and August 2004: Dr. G.Y. Naroo, acting head of the accident and emergency department, told Construction Week, "[O]ur initial assessment of how many heat related [cases] that came into the hospital was 2,500 per month. But once the secondary assessment was done inside the hospital, we realized it came out to be double."
Media reports claim that the UAE underreports construction worker heat-related deaths in hospitals.
In June 2005, several health professionals called for a law banning construction work during the afternoons in July and August. Dr. Rajeev Gupta told Khaleej Times,
"During the months of July and August, when the mercury soars to unbearable limits, UAE records a spate of cases where laborers are hospitalized due to heat strokes and cramps. Heat exhaustion or heat stroke is preventable if one takes precautionary measures. The most important of which is not to expose oneself to the sun from eleven in the morning to five in the evening."
In response, the Ministry of Labor issued a decree in June 2005 banning outdoor work between the hours of 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. during July and August. It resulted in reducing heat-related admissions to hospitals, with Dr. Naroo of the Rashid Hospital, Dubai, telling reporters on July 29 that "only 1,200 to 1,500 [cases] are anticipated this month." That the decree did not go even further in reducing heat-related admissions is probably because many companies openly ignored it-government inspectors reported that during July and August 2005, more than 60 percent of the companies inspected did not follow the afternoon break law. The authorities did not fine a single company for breaking the law.
Moreover, the afternoon break rules have not been adopted on a permanent basis. In May 2006, the UAE Contractors' Association (UAECA) lobbied the government to repeal the 2005 decree because "the re-introduction of the ban this year would create major problems for the sector." In July 2006, the Ministry of Labor announced that it had curtailed the midday break to between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. At a press conference to announce the change, when asked about the reduction in hours, Minister of Labor Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi said, "The contractors should be asked about the reduction in the hours, as they are the ones who have decided the timings." The minister's reply is a clear indication of the construction industry's ability to influence labor laws and regulations without regard for the health and safety of workers.
Health and safety reporting and oversight deficiencies
The federal government's failure to monitor the conduct of construction companies is highlighted by the significant discrepancies between government and private sources regarding the annual numbers of dead and injured construction workers. The government has no comprehensive data about numbers, causes of death or injury, or about the identity of those dead or injured, as Dr. Khalid Khazraji, labor undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor, admitted to the media in November 2005. The government is clearly not enforcing the mechanism that would assist it to do so: although under UAE law companies must immediately notify the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the police of cases of death and injury of employees at work sites, according to government officials quoted in the local media, companies are ignoring their legal obligation in this regard, so true fatality and injury figures remain unknown. For example, in 2005, only six construction companies in Dubai (out of nearly six thousand ) filed reports with the Ministry of Labor of death or injury among their workers. With nearly six thousand construction companies operating in Dubai, however, injuries at only six companies is hard to fathom. Based on the diverging figures of government and private sources, a number of media reports allege that the construction sector has sought to cover up the extent of death and injury among workers.
On July 14, 2006, in a letter to the minister of labor, Human Rights Watch asked for information regarding the death and injury rates of construction workers throughout the country and the discrepancy between government figures for death and injury in Dubai (the only official figures publicly available) and the ones reported by Construction Week. The reply received from the UAE government at the end of September did not address this.
UAE law provides that Ministry of Labor inspectors ensure that employers properly comply with safety and health regulations. However, since the Ministry employs only 140 inspectors to oversee the practices of over 240,000 businesses, it is doubtful that provisions of the labor law with regard to safety and health of workers are being properly implemented. On September 8, 2006, the government announced plans to increase the number of inspectors to 1,000 within the next 18 months.
Illegal workers particularly vulnerable
Some migrant construction workers are in the UAE illegally, and are particularly vulnerable because their employers do not want to take responsibility for them when they are injured at the workplace. According to a local Indian social activist who tracks injured workers:
Private foremen, working on behalf of manpower supply companies, hire a van and drive around hiring illegal construction workers. Because there is a high demand for labor in the construction sector, contractors turn to manpower supply companies to address labor shortages. Local government officials are very helpful in fining companies who hire illegal workers but it is a problem. Manpower supply companies are mostly run by expats [expatriates] who employ illegal workers. They are a big part of the problem. Accidents should be reported to the police, but these employers avoid doing so because they don't want to pay for proper compensation.
In a visit to the government-run Kuwaiti Hospital in Sharjah on February 21, 2006, Human Rights Watch found two men, one an illegal worker and the status of the other worker unknown, hospitalized due to accidents at construction sites. Both had been "dumped" at the hospital by their employers who did not identify themselves to the hospital authorities.
One, an Indian construction worker named Chekelli, was hospitalized for back injuries. According to an Indian businessman who was helping Chekelli to return to India:
"Chekelli was working for a manpower supply company who employed him illegally. Chekelli is from Nizamuddin in Andhra Pradesh in India. He arrived in the UAE on a tourist visa and was subsequently employed by a manpower supply company. He worked at a construction site in Dubai. A large cement bucket fell on his back from a crane, pinning him to the ground. He was admitted to the KuwaitiHospital on January 22, 2006. His employer disappeared after dumping the injured man at the hospital. The employer claimed that he had fallen from a staircase."
The seriousness of Chekalli's injuries meant that he was paralyzed. He would be returning to India without receiving any compensation for his work-related injuries.
The other patient we met had been transferred from Al Kasima Hospital that same day. He was identifiably also Indian, but no one knew his name or what had happened to him. According to his doctor, he appeared to have suffered a serious head injury. When our researcher tried to interview the patient, the man was confused and incoherent. He could not recall what had happened to him and when asked about his employer or any associates, he kept turning to his pillow, looking for a piece of paper that was not there. His doctor said that he is probably suffering from memory loss. It was not clear who would take care of his return to India, since no information about him was known.
Suicides on the rise
In the past few years, the media has reported several cases of suicide of construction workers distressed about their working conditions. Accurate and reliable data on the number of suicides is, of course, hard to come by. According to Syed Mubarak, labor attach at the Indian consulate in Dubai, 84 Indian nationals committed suicide in 2005 alone, although it is not clear how many of these cases involved construction workers.
Human Rights Watch documented one case involving a construction worker who committed suicide at his labor camp after his employer allegedly failed to pay him his wages. A labor camp manager in Sonapar, Dubai, told us how on January 9, 2006, Julfikar Korani, a worker from India, committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling of a bathroom inside the camp. According to the camp manager, Julfikar had arrived from Calcutta in June 2005 to work as a carpenter. The camp manager said Julfakir's monthly wage was 700 AED ($190), and if he worked overtime he could earn up to 1,100 AED ($300), but the manager presented Zulfikar's wage records showing that the employer had paid him only for one month in the more than six months since he had started working.
Julfakir's cousin, Jakir, who lives at the same camp, said Julfakir took a loan of 90,000 Indian rupees ($2,000) to obtain a visa to work in the UAE. Jakir said Julfakir had to repay 6,300 rupees ($140) monthly, and that Julfikar was under financial stress because he was falling behind on his loan repayments. The camp manager said that after Julfikar's suicide, no one cared to investigate; even the police did not ask any questions.
Construction Week reported on another case of a worker who committed suicide after allegedly suffering wage exploitation at the hands of his employer. Arumugam Venketesan, a 24-year-old Indian national, worked for a manpower supply company. Construction Week reported that "the company that brought him [Venketesan] to Dubai was being paid between 15 AED [$4.10] and 20 AED [$5.50] per hour for the labor they supplied to contractors. But this company passed on a mere 3 AED [$0.80] per hour to its workers." Venketesan's suicide note is a heart-wrenching and eye-opening account of his daily struggles in the face of exploitation:
"I have been made to work without any money for months. Now, for a month I've been suffering from a constant headache and wanted to visit a doctor to examine my condition. I asked my camp boss for 50 [$14] but he refused and told me to get back to work After my death I want the company to pay all my salary dues to my family and repay the financial debt my family has incurred because of them."
Commenting on the general phenomenon and the circumstances leading to such suicides, Dr. Shiv Prakash, a psychiatrist at the NewMedicalCenter and Hospital in Dubai, was quoted in Construction Week as saying,
:When these workers reach here and they realize what they have gotten themselves into and see that they've lost everything, they react to it. They feel trapped as they now know that they can't go back either. There's no escape. They know that they are in a bonded labor type of situation and are reacting to what they think is the biggest mistake in their life, an irreparable loss. It is the reaction to this loss which can lead to suicidal contemplation."
 Human Rights Watch interview with Nataranjan, February 19, 2006.  Fattah, "In Dubai, an outcry from Asians for workplace rights," New York Times.  Human Rights Watch telephone interview with S. Kumar, Dubai, April 3, 2006.  Ibid.  Giuffrida and Egbert, "Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labor," Construction Week. Ibid.  Angela Giuffrida, "Besix workers are sent home", Construction Week, May 27, 2006.  Human Rights Watch interviewed 107 migrant workers including 60 construction workers.  Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, February 21, 2006.  Human Rights Watch interview with Maj. Aref Mohammad Baqer, Dubai, February 25, 2006.  Ruling by Dubai Court of Cassation, Case # 268 (2001), October 27, 2001.  Diaa Hadid, "Construction deaths and accidents leap," Gulf News, January 17, 2006.  "Site worker death toll exceeds 800," Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005. Their investigation calculated fatality figures for migrant workers by compiling data recorded by the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries that have the largest number of workers in the construction sector. Ibid. National Atlas of the United Arab Emirates (University of the United Arab Emirates, 1993) and "Temperature and Humidity in Dubai," http://www.godubai.com/explore/whatshot.asp (accessed May 25, 2006). Dubai chapter of World Safety Organization meeting attended by Human Rigths Watch, Dubai, February 23, 2006.  "Many Victims of heatstroke are not being accurately diagnosed by A&E hospital staff," Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.  "Facts about UAEHospital Fatality Figures Revealed," Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.  Anjana Sankar, "Law banning construction work in afternoons urged," Khaleej Times, June 10, 2005.  Ministerial Resolution No. 467 for 2005, http://www.mol.gov.ae/Pages-EN/documents-e...es-EN.htm#page6 (accessed August 11, 2006).  Diaa Hadid, "Companies devise ways to flout midday break rule," Gulf News, July 29, 2005.  Diaa Hadid, "60% of companies ignored noon break," Gulf News, August 31, 2005. Ibid.  Conrad Egbert, "Contractors lobby against noon ban," Construction Week, May 13, 2006.  Conrad Egbert, "Contractors allowed to choose hours of the ban," Construction Week, July 15, 2006. Ibid.  Diaa Hadid, "Work-related accidents and deaths 'going unreported,'" Gulf News, November 21, 2005.  Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, http://www.mol.gov.ae/Pages-EN/documents-en/rule-labour.HTML (accessed August 30, 2006), art. 142; and Ministerial Order No.(32) Year 1982 RE The Determination of retentive Methods and Measures For the Protection of Workers From the Risks Work. Hadid, "Work-related accidents and deaths 'going unreported,'" Gulf News. Ibid. The source also noted Dubai municipality figures of 39 deaths and 175 injuries for 2005.  See, for example, "Facts about UAE Hospital Fatality Figures Revealed," Construction Week, No. 83, August 19, 2005.  Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, http://www.mol.gov.ae/Pages-EN/documents-en/rule-labour.HTML (accessed August 30, 2006), art. 167.  Ivan Gale, "Ministry to intensify labour inspections," Gulf News, September 8, 2006. Human Rights Watch interview with Indian social activist, identity withhold, February 21, 2006.  Human Rights Watch interview with Indian businessman who wished to remain anonymous, KuwaitiHospital, Sharjah, February 21, 2006.  Human Rights Watch interview with Syed Mubarak, Dubai, February 21, 2006.  Human Rights Watch interview with labor camp manager, identity withheld, Sonapar, Dubai, February 24, 2006. Ibid.  Human Rights watch interview with Jakir, Sonapar, Dubai, February 24, 2006.  Human Rights watch interview with labor camp manager, Sonapar, Dubai.  "Worker borrowed to buy stamp for suicide letter," Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005. Ibid.  Ibid.