Where do architectural wonders, coat hanger abortions, virtual slave labor, and a modern underground railroad meet?
By May 20, 2006, construction on the world’s tallest man-made structure had only just begun to take shape. What would rise into a gleaming, 160-plus-story tower due to open early this year was, at that time, mostly just a few modest floors of steel framing.
But construction on the Burj Dubai was only one of many unique things taking shape in Dubai that day: across town and a half mile out in the gulf, men were building islands shaped like palm trees, like Arabic poetry, like a map of the world. Plans were underway for the world’s first underwater hotel.
Down Sheikh Zayed road, in the Mall of the Emirates, tourists were skiing indoors. Behind them, a mural of an idyllic alpine vista covered the walls; at the bottom of their run, skiers arrived at clusters of fake pine trees covered in fake snow. Outside the desert snow globe, midday temperatures reached 107° Fahrenheit. At the big hole in the ground, and at roughly sixteen additional projects around the United Arab Emirates (UAE), progress had hit a snag. Between 7,000 and 10,000 workers for the Belgian Besix Construction Company, most of them Indian, were entering day five of a coordinated strike for bigger food allowances, better working conditions, and pay. The strike was costing Besix about a million dollars a day.
It was the second major strike on the Burj site in just over two months, and the largest strike to hit the UAE. Two months earlier, a protest at the Burj had boiled over into a violent riot. According to news reports, roughly 2,500 workers had rampaged, attacking security staff, breaking into offices, smashing computers, and attacking cars and construction equipment, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Besix is Belgium’s largest construction company, and a favorite pet of the Emirati ruling class, receiving many of the choicest contracts. By 2006, the company had already built the Emirates Towers Hotel—one of the most recognizable spikes of the Dubai skyline, known commonly as “Emirates Tower Two.” Work by Besix was also underway or had been completed on dozens of projects around Dubai and the UAE, like the new space needle control tower for the expanding Dubai airport and a fourteen-lane bridge.
Pitted against Besix—without the benefit of labor unions (they’re outlawed in the UAE), representative politics, or freedom of movement—the foreign workers had hobbled construction across one of the world’s most dynamic cities.
Roughly 2,500 workers had rampaged, attacking security staff, breaking into offices, smashing computers, and attacking cars and construction equipment, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
But with such gains came increased pressure and uncertainty. The workers wanted their dues, but they also needed their jobs. They needed the roofs Besix provided back at their labor camps, no matter how miserable or overcrowded. Their families back home in regions like Kerala depended on their remittances. The situation in Dubai was unfair, but it could’ve been worse. Dubai wasn’t the paradise of recruiters’ promises, but there was work. If the workers didn’t like it, countless millions would eagerly replace them.
Unlike some previous strikes, this one had captured the attention of the international media. It was the biggest organized labor strike in the UAE’s history. And for a country with an uncanny ability to shape its own image abroad, it was embarrassing. On the fourth day of the strike, Dubai’s Permanent Committee of Labour Affairs (PCLA), charged with inspecting labor camps and monitoring corporate compliance with labor standards, had threatened the strikers with deportation if they did not return to work the next day.
Despite the threats, the strikers had stayed back at the camps and had not returned to work. While they stayed behind, at least fifty of their co-workers returned to work, effectively breaking the strike. The overwhelming majority, who had stayed back at the camps, weren’t happy when the fifty or so men returned.
Violence erupted. Desperate compatriots turned against one another, smashing faces, beating each other down into the bloodying dust. Outnumbered, the scabs suffered numerous minor injuries. Battered and morally broken by their colleagues, they apparently stole away for several days, fearful of further retaliation.
The strikers’ victory was fleeting. Police swooped into the worker camps and hauled away the alleged ringleaders. By the next day, pretty much everyone left was back to work. All told, the strike had cost the Besix company between four and five and a half million dollars. A few days later, as many as eighty-six strikers were deported. For the moment, work resumed.
Emiratis like to say that thirty years ago, their gleaming metropolis was scarcely larger than a fishing village. The UAE began as a loose federation of oil-rich British protectorates—a sparsely-populated, mostly Bedouin land controlled by a few wealthy families. Today’s image of the UAE as a Middle Eastern capital of finance and culture is due largely to the foresight of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the UAE from 1971 to 2004, who saw that the country’s long-term success depended on spending oil wealth to diversify the economy.
As of 2007, the country still exported about 2.7 million barrels of oil each day, the world’s fourth-biggest exporter. But efforts to wean the country from its once oil-based economy have been successful. Lured by “Free Trade Zones,” multinationals like Bayer, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft have dropped roots in and around Dubai. Dubai’s beaches, over the top attractions, and endless shopping anchored a huge tourism industry.
It was a wildly speculative market, dominated by foreigners. Second- and third-home owners, enticed by the absence of property taxes, found in Dubai a homesteaders free-for-all.
But Dubai’s blazing economic figures don’t account for the emirate’s non-citizens—about 80 percent of the total population—some of whom rarely, if ever, see a paycheck. A staggering 90 percent of the country’s overall workforce is foreign, and foreigners account for up to 98 percent of domestic laborers—housemaids, chauffeurs, nannies, etc. And that’s just among the documented.
But because of Dubai’s dependence on foreign workers and investment, its new economy is more vulnerable—at least in the short term—to the global recession. Corruption scandals implicated some of Dubai’s biggest players. In 2009, former executives at Nakheel—a subsidiary of Dubai World Group, and the developer of the three palm-shaped islands, with uncertain futures, and the map of the world—were jailed. Construction projects around Dubai stopped. The cranes froze. Premium condos sat empty.
It was a wildly speculative market, dominated by foreigners. Second- and third-home owners, enticed by the absence of property taxes, found in Dubai a homesteaders free-for-all. They planted their flags on artificial beachfront property for a song—for vacation homes or a quick flip.
In 2007, I emailed John Davis, the Middle East chief executive of Colliers International, a multinational real-estate market analysis firm with offices in the UAE. His outlook for Dubai’s future was cautiously optimistic: “The level of development activity in Dubai is too significant for forthcoming supply not to have an impact on the market,” he said. “Looking beyond the inevitable market correction, the long-term prospects are good, as they are underpinned by two core fundamentals—economic and population growth.”
He may yet prove right, but the numbers predict a different story. In a city of around 1.3 million people, the Dubai Waterfront project—which includes just one of the three palm-shaped islands under construction—was designed to house 1.5 million residents. Other palm projects were nearly as ambitious.
In the past year, the weaknesses of Dubai’s if-you-build-it-they-will-come growth model, underwritten by the city’s 21st century Medicis, has been exposed, most notably in news of Dubai World Group’s $59 billion in liabilities, which jolted financial markets late last year. Colliers says now that roughly 40 percent of the city’s office space sits empty. Market shock and property glut has pushed commercial property rents down 40 percent in the last year—with more vacancies to come.
The world needs Dubai to succeed—not least for geo-political reasons. Its failure would be a major setback to progressivism and integration in the Middle East. But, now, is also a good time to be honest about what’s been happening beneath the Dubai miracle.
I first arrived in Dubai in March 2006. My friend Andrea and her husband, Darren, a photographer, had been exposed to the world of human trafficking that pervades Dubai’s underbelly, and they invited me to come stay with them and work on a story.
They were a young, creative industry couple—Andrea a stylist, Darren a photographer. (I’ve changed their and others’ names in this article) While working on a set in 2006, Andrea met a Filipina woman named Carol, a nineteen-year-old housemaid who had accompanied her employer’s daughter, a child-actor, to the shoot. The shoot had been hastily arranged, and Carol was charged with escorting the daughter. It was a risk by Carol’s employer: Carol hadn’t been allowed out of the home, other than trips to the shop on the ground floor of their building, but last-minute necessity demanded it.
Andrea noticed Carol, she said, “because she looked like shit.” Having spent a portion of her youth living in Manila with parents doing ministry work, Andrea was able to greet Carol with a few words of rudimentary Tagalog. Talking to Carol, Andrea learned that Carol had been trafficked. Her pay had been withheld for five months, she had been brought into the country under false pretenses to work illegally, and her employers had assaulted her, physically and sexually.
“She was totally terrified, but I think it was warming to her that I could speak some Tagalog,” Andrea said. “She looked around like she was scared. It was the first time she wasn’t with her bosses. We were in a quiet corner and she told me everything in about two minutes.”
Carol, it turned out, was well-educated and, like many educated Filipinos, spoke English well. After encouraging Carol to run away and stay with them, Andrea and Darren sheltered her and navigated her through the red tape of leaving without papers or money. My friends were not associated with an NGO, and felt they were getting in over their heads. I was the only journalist they knew outside the UAE, and they wanted the story told.
The small jungle village where Carol and her siblings grew up is on Bohol island, not far from Cebu. In Bohol, coconuts and bananas hang from lush palmetto canopies, and the rice fields are broad and green, but life is difficult for most in the Philippines. The Philippine government consistently ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt, so there isn’t much money, and there isn’t much to do.
The women in Carol’s village passed their evenings singing karaoke or, if they had in-home electricity, watching TV. The men had a cockfighting ring down the road. Before he died, Carol’s father liked drinking and cockfighting. He was well to do, relative to the poverty around him, having made a steady living as a driver. The family home had electricity and running, though non-potable, water; his five daughters and one son had gone or were going to school.
After years of hard living, cirrhosis eventually attacked Carol’s father’s liver and now his health deteriorated. Money was tighter, and the family could no longer afford the education for Carol, their youngest. At nineteen, she was the first and youngest of three sisters to venture to Dubai, the first of three to get ensnared by the promise it offered, only to wind up in various states of virtual slavery.
Though my friends had rescued Carol when I arrived in Dubai, I learned that they had also begun receiving text messages from Carol’s sister, Marilyn, who had recently arrived in Dubai and fallen into a similar situation. A few days after my arrival, just after five a.m., my friends and I were in a car looking for her. It was still dark outside, and the desert air was cool enough to fog the windows. We pulled our jackets tighter to keep warm and smoked cigarettes through a barely opened window.
Marilyn, like Carol, had been working as a maid for several months and had been sending text messages for weeks, but only late at night. She had had her passport seized by the family matriarch. If the woman knew she had a mobile phone, it might be confiscated, too. From the start, her employers had ignored the requirement of giving Marilyn one day off per week. So meeting her somewhere neutral and public, and under less strained circumstances, was impossible.
It had to be before dawn, the one time each day when Marilyn was permitted outside the front gates to take out the garbage. Any later and “Madame” would be awake. Any earlier and Marilyn would get less than her usual four hours of sleep. It was her one window of opportunity, and we couldn’t find her.
We were lost. In the prosperous, impeccably groomed neighborhood, every other street seemed to end in a cul-de-sac. Like the Indianapolis suburbs where I grew up, there seemed only one road in and one road out. We didn’t have much to go on. Marilyn had sent incomplete directions in a pidgin of Filipina English and text-message. She hadn’t been allowed more than fifteen yards from her employers’ front gate in two months. So she gave us the number on the address placard outside the gate, and whatever else she could cobble together from the memories of her first few days in Dubai.
I was losing hope when Marilyn suddenly appeared at the edge of a driveway in the cone of our high beams, dressed in standard pink housemaid scrubs. We unlocked the door and she climbed into the back seat.
Marilyn was petite with well-worn hands for a young woman probably in her late twenties. She spoke quickly, her voice rising and choked, at the brink of sobbing. She’d been having an awful time, she said. Her boss had been shouting at her and working her all day and night with only a few hours rest. She hadn’t been paid yet, and hadn’t had a day off since she’d arrived.
Things were shaping up for her just as they had for her sister Carol before her. Unfortunately, their paths had crossed, unawares. Marilyn was already on route to Dubai before her younger sister was able to warn her. Marilyn talked to us for a few minutes, before her coworker, another Filipina, poked her head through the gate into the glare of the headlights. She joined Marilyn in the back seat to tell us that she, too, had gone without pay or a day off—but for six months. The two of them began to cry.
That early morning, amid the cul-de-sacs, immaculate shrubbery, and luxury tract housing, I caught my first glimpse of a human underside, huddled together and crying in the back seat of the car, dressed in pink scrubs.
Through the rear window, a pair of waiting headlights—attached to what appeared to be an SUV—appeared behind us in the morning fog. I’d already had troubles with government SUV’s following us after I wanted to photograph birds at the Khor Dubai wetland preserves for a travel story. I wanted to get out of there.
We needed, I felt, some sort of protection, at least some umbrella of legitimacy, if we were going to report this story properly, but we had none. None I could afford, anyway. I had arrived in town with no official assignment for this story—just a sheet of paper affirming I was there to work on a few travel stories for the New York Times, which was true, but wouldn’t help if we were caught sniffing around about human rights. The headlights shining through the rear window had me worried that I, too, was getting in over my head.
I had not yet come to see Dubai as a microcosm globalization. On this patch of desert, the world’s classes and nations commingle and vie with one another. And the victims of this dynamism were hidden beneath the city’s sparkling skyline. They were the nighttime construction workers from Indonesia, the Ukrainian prostitutes in hotel bars, and Filipina housemaids. That early morning, amid the cul-de-sacs, immaculate shrubbery, and luxury tract housing, I caught my first glimpse of a human underside, huddled together and crying in the back seat of the car, dressed in pink scrubs.
Still, there was no talk yet of Marilyn’s wanting to leave Dubai or even run away. Marilyn had a child back home which was with her family, and she needed the money. Ideally, she would find a different employer—one who paid her, at least—but she said she would stick it out for a while to see if things got better. Two months later Marilyn, like Carol, had run away, half-starved, overworked, abused, and unpaid. Just a few months later still, another older sister, Lydia, arrived in Dubai and was soon texting Andrea for help.
On October 1, 2009, Emaar Properties, developers of the Burj Dubai, announced that the tower’s cladding—the glass and aluminum “skin”—was finished, effectively completing all but the interior and landscaping for the world’s tallest structure. As of early December, having missed a self-imposed deadline, Emaar announced the tower would open officially on January 4, 2010. As a recent Associated Press article noted, the world’s tallest building, conceived in an era defined by opulence, risk, and great striving, would open to the vacuum left in the wake of prosperity’s collapse.
In the restroom, damp clothes hung from lines. The broken toilet had a hose-and-bucket beside it for flushing. It reminded me of similarly rudimentary set-ups in rural Asia, as if the third world had followed these women.
The first time I saw the Burj, in 2006, was in the days following our pre-dawn meeting with Marilyn. It was still in the early stages of construction and was hard to make out exactly what was what in the dark. Excavation had commenced more than two years before, and now the first few levels of steel framing had begun to emerge from ground level. My friend, Darren, pointed it out to me from where we stood on the balcony of an old, soot-covered high rise, just opposite the site, off Sheikh Zayed Road—an anomaly on the luxurious thoroughfare, flanked by the Fairmont hotel and the two Emirates towers. It was nighttime, and we could see a constellation of lighted cranes and the steel frames of the construction sites in nearby Business Bay—a sixty-four-million-square-foot development that planners say will comprise 240 towers and house 191,000 people, originally slated for completion by 2015.
Back through the sliding glass doors was the home of eleven young Filipina women, most of whom worked for a local grocer. Through Carol, my friends had learned about the world of Filipina immigrants in Dubai and continued to do what they could.
Andrea was trying to help one of the Filipina women obtain a safe abortion. It was a dangerous (and illegal) position for Angela to be in. But not as dangerous as that of being pregnant. Sex out of wedlock is illegal in Dubai, punishable by imprisonment, even for foreigners. The average tourist hardly paid any mind behind gilded hotel room doors. But public evidence of unmarried sex is not taken lightly by Dubai authorities. In 2008, a British couple was jailed, then deported, for allegedly having drunken sex on a local beach—amid a widespread crackdown on “indecent” behavior. An unmarried, visibly pregnant servant would raise suspicion. A hospital birth would more or less guarantee her getting caught.
The woman had tried taking some black market pills that hadn’t worked. Another one of the girls had almost hemorrhaged to death from a self-administered abortion—performed in the bathtub with a coat hanger—just weeks before. At least two others in the apartment had tried, as well.
Andrea knew a doctor who could get proper pills and a safe dosage. The pregnant woman’s Filipino boyfriend was there with her, and they seemed very young and in love. He seemed supportive. But her decision could endanger her life.
In the restroom, damp clothes hung from lines. The broken toilet had a hose-and-bucket beside it for flushing. It reminded me of similarly rudimentary set-ups in rural Asia, as if the third world had followed these women. While Andrea and the pregnant woman made their arrangements, I sang karaoke with her roommates. The place was cramped, dingy, but the eleven women were cheerful. It felt like a slumber party. They giggled and sang in English and Tagalog.
As one of the world’s most decadent construction projects rose nearby, in a city whose existence seemed as improbable as it was incomprehensible, we had fun, if just for a night. I’d learn more about the horrible situation of foreign workers in Dubai, but in this little apartment, for that moment at least, it was possible to forget all that, to forget about the unpaid construction workers laboring through the night, about the imprisoned maids, about an economy that teetered atop a cracking pyramid of inequity. That night everyone could relax, and even smile.
Austin Considine is a writer currently living in Indianapolis, where he is working on a documentary film.