How Dubai’s legal catch-22 transforms workers from around the world into de facto slave laborers without rights, days off, or pay.
Khor Dubai, otherwise known as Dubai Creek, snakes through the middle of the city, dividing the skyscrapers and upscale hotels in the tourist district of Jumeirah from the older, denser neighborhood of Deira to the northeast. Driving to Deira, you pass Port Rashid, Dubai’s export hub, and the massive Dubai Drydocks, a global center for ship repair. The Knock Nevis supertanker—at 1,504 feet the world’s longest sea vessel—was repaired there in 1991 after Iraqi missiles set it ablaze during the Iran-Iraq war. It is also where twenty-six Asian workers drowned in 2002 when the dock’s floodgates collapsed.
From there, you take the Al Shindagha tunnel beneath the creek at its mouth on the gulf coast, and emerge amid the dense activity of Deira and the smell of the fish, meat, and vegetables at the souk. Unlike Jumeirah, Deira has a street life. Poky cafés and restaurants line the twisting, narrow streets. At night, packs of men wander in and out of cafés and hotel bars. Unlike central Dubai, Deira is walkable.
The offices of the Philippine Labor and Consular attaché are located there in a nondescript building. Within the consulate’s walls, I found an entirely different and isolated world. At that time, in 2006, between sixty and one hundred women stayed on the grounds on any given day—all of them runaways, most of them former housemaids.
One of the women staying there knew my friend Andrea (a pseudonym, like several other names in this story) and was able to sneak us onto the grounds during non-visiting hours. We wanted more time talking to residents and Andrea’s photographer husband, Darren, needed freedom to shoot.
We ducked through the low side gate into a concrete courtyard with only a few palmettos for shade. A dalmatian mixed with something shorter and fatter began barking, trying to be menacing. The consular staff was away for the weekend.
The grounds had become a refugee camp. Drying white linens hung beside tarpaulins that gave some privacy and shade. Laughter leaked from the buildings that looked as though they might have provided storage space at one time. Now they served as lodging for the women, where their mats and few possessions were laid out in neat rows. A few girls peeked out at us: of the sixty-eight women we heard were on site, we saw a dozen or fewer. Near a small garden sat an unpainted gazebo where four of the women joined us.
One of the four, Suzanne, a short and squat woman with big hands, was outspoken about her experience. But she was also happy: she was returning home to the Philippine provinces the following Saturday. According to a consulate official I spoke to later, she was one of eighty-two women who had already been repatriated that year. It was March.
Suzanne, like many other maids I met, was not uneducated. She had earned a hotel and restaurant degree at college before quitting the Philippines in search of better money. But as a housemaid and chauffeur, she had been verbally abused, underpaid, and wrongfully accused of causing trouble in her employer’s house. Like all of the women we spoke to that day, she had never received a day off—though every domestic worker contract that passes through the consulate spells out that workers must have one day off per week.
Three of those unpaid months were part of her contractual agreement with the labor supply company that had connected Suzanne with her Dubai employer, or sponsor. Employers are supposed to cover the costs of plane tickets home, and provide food, lodging, and salary. The three month salary deduction was an incentive for employers, who could effectively pay themselves back for the up-front costs with three months of free labor.
According to the women and to officials at the Philippine consulate, whom I later interviewed, salary deductions of some sort were still the norm, even though contracts authorized by the consulate often specified that they weren’t allowed. Passport and visa document seizure by the employer was also standard practice and remains a problem today, despite increased efforts by the local government to curb such abuses.
Each of the women I spoke to was told that surrendering her passport was merely for safekeeping. In truth, it places the women in a de facto state of bonded labor if the employer chooses not to pay her salary. Escape—from the country or to merely seek different employment—is very difficult for someone without papers.
As a housemaid and chauffeur, she had been verbally abused, underpaid, and wrongfully accused of causing trouble in her employer’s house. Like all of the women we spoke to that day, she had also never received a day off.
“We buy you, and then you work, that’s it,” Suzanne explained. “You’re not a person to us.”
Vicente Cabe, then Labor Attaché at the consulate, explained that Philippine women who come to Dubai for work can fall into abusive situations in a number of ways. Commonly, a young woman enters the country on a month-long tourist visa—either under a false pretext from her employer that a proper work visa is forthcoming, or by a prospective employer after she has already arrived in Dubai as a tourist.
“You are supposed to be coming here to visit, maybe friends or relatives—or you know, see the sights,” Cabe explained. “But it happens that so many Filipinas are coming over not as tourists, but for purposes of working. And the law here is very clear: on a visit visa or a tourist visa, you are not allowed to work.”
Once her tourist visa expires, the woman owes the UAE government a 100 dirham (about twenty-seven dollars) fine for each day she overstays her visa. The work visa she was promised never comes through because, often, it was never processed. By that time, the woman faces a catch-22. If she stays with her employer, she owes the UAE more money each day. If she runs away, she does so not only without her passport, but at risk of imprisonment.
Cabe also described what’s known as a contract switch, as detailed briefly in the U.S. State Department’s latest Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report. This is what happened to Carol, the Filipina woman who was my friends’ introduction to the life of foreign workers in Dubai (see part 1 of this story). What happens is the worker signs up with a recruitment agency in her home country, under the assumption that she will find decent work as a waitress or hostess. Just before, or just after arriving in Dubai, she learns that either the job pays less than she was promised or, in Carol’s case, that her work papers were furtively processed to restrict her to domestic service—a job to which she never agreed.
At that point, the woman can either pay steep cancellation fines and lose the hundreds of dollars she has already paid to her recruiter and to the Philippine Overseas Workers Welfare Administration for processing, or accept the job she’s been manipulated into taking.
“I’m out of hell,” she said. “Dubai is like a hell.”
In these cases, trafficking involves less intrigue and effort than forcibly moving people. Instead, it traps victims within a Kafkaesque system and deprives them of an opportunity to fight through a combination of passport seizure, abuse, and lack of pay. They are imprisoned mentally, financially, and politically.
Rosalyn, a second woman we spoke with at the consulate, said she had come to Dubai after working in Saudi Arabia for two and a half years. She had left the Philippines to support a fifteen year-old son.
When she started working in Dubai, Rosalyn was the sole housemaid for between five to seven family members, though she had signed a contract to serve five people. After a while, more family members started moving into the home: another small family from the husband’s second marriage, and then another—the daughter’s family. Eventually, she was working for a dozen or more people. She ran to the consulate after they missed payment for six months of work and began physically abusing her.
The other two women at the gazebo didn’t say much, but would chime in to corroborate what Rosalyn and Suzanne were saying. Lots of the women hadn’t been paid. No one seemed to get days off. Everyone, including women I spoke to later, seemed to know someone who had been assaulted, or raped, or who was pregnant and in trouble, or in jail. The four women had been warned of the dangers by the Philippine government, but their financial needs back home, even for $200 a month, had outweighed the risks.
Some of them, like Suzanne, had long since reversed her opinion, which was why she was going home. “Better to go back to our country than to work here,” she said. She would rather be poor and stuck at home, she said, than poor and stuck at the consulate, or worse, in Dubai.
“I’m out of hell,” she said. “Dubai is like a hell.”
When Carol first started hearing about Dubai, she only heard wonderful things. “Everyone told me Dubai is nice,” she said when I interviewed her back in the Philippines, after she’d been rescued. “They just don’t know what happens there in Dubai, they don’t know the rules. They just hear, ‘Oh, Dubai is such a nice place,’ they just hear rumors. They don’t have any idea about Dubai.”
When Carol arrived at Dubai Airport, she was picked up by an operative from a local labor agency called Al-Dana Labor Supply. As is the case in legal operations, usually the Philippine recruitment company—in Carol’s case, Onward Resources and Development Services—works with a partner agency at the destination country, the latter of which assumes responsibility for placing the worker with an employer, under the auspices of the consulate. Carol claimed she never passed through the consulate.
In 2006, I put in a call to Al-Dana myself, using a pseudonym and a phony story about being a foreign businessman. I already knew what the rules in the housemaid contracts are supposed to dictate by law. But I wanted to hear what they had to say to a prospective customer. I told them I was interested in finding a housemaid, and I’m shopping around to compare prices.
Despite stipulations in the work contracts that guarantee at least one day off per week, they explicitly told me that I didn’t have to give my servant one.
“No, no holidays,” the man said.
What about the passports? Whether or not I wanted to keep my housemaid’s passport was entirely up to me. “You are the sponsor, so you may keep the passport,” the man said.
This, too, is outlawed.
I called Al-Dana a few weeks ago to see if things had changed. The agency’s fees had gone up, and there was no talk of withholding salary. My questions about passports and days off were more or less deflected. The company appeared to have grown more cautious about what they’d say on the phone, perhaps a reflection of increased efforts by the Emirate’s government to curb abuses of foreign workers. This is progress of a sort. But the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons report expressed deep ongoing concerns about the treatment of Asian workers in the United Arab Emirates.
Aside from standard processing and deposit fees, prices in 2006 varied by ethnicity according to agreements worked out between the UAE government and that of the host country: A Filipina cost 4,200 ($1,144 USD when I was there), paid to al-Dana, with one month’s salary deduction allowed; an Indonesian woman was also 4,200, but allowed for a two-month deduction. They were to be paid 700 dirhams a month—about $9 less than the $200 agreed upon in the worker contracts supplied by the Philippine consulate. Withholding of salary was not permitted with Sri Lankan or Ethiopian women, but the fees for them up front were lower—$626 and $490, respectively. The monthly pay agreement was also lower for both: roughly $136 USD a month.
The majority of Filipinas with whom I spoke had had their wages held for at least three months, according to an old labor contract standard that had since been outlawed. An unscrupulous employer would never pay his worker a cent because the maid would have little recourse, except to illegally abscond without her passport.
I would have a carte blanche to treat her as I pleased. If my servant had been brought in on a tourist visa, she would have no legal recourse. Having unknowingly come there illegally in the first place, she would have overstayed her tourist visa after three months, owing more money to the government each day. If she were caught running away, she could be imprisoned.
With such an openly contemptuous attitude toward the well-being of domestic workers, it’s little surprise that women like Carol—who was beaten by one employer, then sexually assaulted by a second—are so often taken advantage of. It is slave owning made easy.
Because they work behind closed doors, Dubai’s domestic worker problems are well hidden. But a few years ago, the rattling busloads of South Asian construction workers were part of the scenery in boom-time Dubai. They were dressed in standard coveralls, and always en route to Dubai’s innumerable construction sites or back to the labor camps where they lived.
To anyone who’d paid attention to the news—to the reports of abuse, withheld wages, construction site deaths—the packed buses were a constant reminder of the exploitation underpinning Dubai’s growth and architectural splendor.
When the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, opened on January 4, 2010, it was renamed for the emir of Abu Dhabi who bailed out Dubai last year. Dubai needs good news these days, and I was happy for the city. But I also thought about the workers who suffered for its sake, some of whom I spoke to.
During my second trip to Dubai, in the spring of 2007, construction site deaths were in the news. An ex-pat journalist friend of mine who works for a local English-language media outlet in Dubai said he had seen many of these safety and workers’ rights violations firsthand.
Once, he recalled, he had gone to a construction site and had seen a man installing an overhead light bulb on a high-rise balcony. The man was up on a stool that was balanced on two legs, the other two of which were hanging over the edge. The man was not attached to a harness.
“Western companies have a way of losing their ethics when they come to Dubai,” my friend said. “They look around and see that no one else is being ethical, so why should they?”
His editors had begun submitting news copy to local authorities for approval before publishing. Their fear of getting shut down was warranted: on a few occasions, advertisers had pulled out just before publication because of pressure from an unhappy government—a circuitous way for the authorities to wield power over the press without resorting to outright censorship.
Not being bound by such constraints, Darren and I pretended we knew what we were doing and where we were going and ventured onto the site of the Burj Dubai, in hopes of getting some photos and maybe some furtive comments. Another friend, Purdeep, a neighbor and a native Hindi speaker came along with us as a translator. I sported a tie to look official. Amazingly, and despite being poorly shaved, I think it worked.
A line of cars snaked past the sentry booth, and we got in line. At one point, we came to a stop just front of the guards.
“Don’t look to your left,” I say.
“I know, man,” Darren said.
“I think we’re all right.”
Traffic lurched forward again, and we followed the crawl of buses, some empty, some full of workers, their dark skins darker from the blazing sun. We descended down a hill along a makeshift dirt road for trucks and earth movers toward a roundabout in the dirt near the foot of the tower. Waves of workers dressed in coveralls run to the buses to catch rides back to their work camps. The buses never waited long. Traffic on the congested construction site, with its thousands of workers and rickety buses, had to keep moving.
Though we could faintly see the steel and glass spires of Sheikh Zayed road in the dust-choked distance, it felt like a slum—albeit with running water and working electricity. Dirty coveralls hung everywhere from clothes lines. Flies swarmed our faces.
Among the numerous buses, most of which are white, we spotted a yellow bus with a sheet of A4 paper taped to the windshield, which read “Burj Dubai Tower.” Workers from Arabtec, one of the major companies involved in the building of the tower, piled on and the bus lurched forward. Instead of stopping, we decided to follow it off the construction site.
As we followed the bus, I asked Purdeep how he liked Dubai. “It’s my second home,” he says. “I’ve been here now for sixteen years.” He has two daughters and lived next door to my friends’ home, where I stayed. A funny, quick witted, and charming man, he has a lanky figure and almost always wears a colorful cricket jersey.
Unlike a lot of his compatriots, he had a job at an airline: full health benefits, 90 percent reductions on air fare, and direct flights to Mumbai, where he gets a ride to his home in Goa. Unlike the workers we were about to meet, he got to keep his passport. The porters and baggage handlers, he said, aren’t so lucky. He was taking a risk by coming along with us, but it was something he wanted to do.
We followed the yellow bus for miles outside the city, past Mirdif—through Alavir, through Sonapur. Still the bus kept on, past upturned gray clay and sand, errant pipes, ditches. Earth movers and trucks kicked up dirt, leveling the rolling desert landscape. Distance was marked by the strings of power line towers that stretched out to some unseen power source.
Some of the camps we passed looked modern and well-kept, like army barracks or college dormitories. The only tell-tale signs that these were labor camps were the strings of dark blue, orange, and gray colored coveralls hanging out to dry on clotheslines attached to each balcony and window. Others weren’t so nice.
The bus we’d been following stopped at a camp that wasn’t much better than a shanty town, with its single-story, corrugated iron rooftops. Walls made of more corrugated iron, tacked together, surrounded the camp. Though we could faintly see the steel and glass spires of Sheikh Zayed road in the dust-choked distance, it felt like a slum—albeit with running water and working electricity. Dirty coveralls hung everywhere from clothes lines. Flies swarmed our faces. The walls of the lodgings were wooden and dilapidated. Glimpses inside revealed small rooms packed with bunks, accommodating between six and twelve guys a room. There were no women.
The workers were suspicious at first. The first man we talked to was alone, and didn’t want to say anything critical.
“Are you being paid on time, paid the full amount, paid overtime?” I asked.
“The payment is perfect all the time,” Purdeep said, translating from Hindi. “They get the overtime, and what is in the contract, they’re getting the same payment, and the salaries are on time.”
“Any problems in the past?” I asked. “What about the riots, the demonstrations? Did that change things, were they bad before?”
“No, he’s been working for the last two years, but there’s no complaints,” Purdeep said. “‘Absolutely fine,’ he says, ‘everything is on time.’”
“What about his colleagues?” I asked. “I’ve spoken with several people haven’t been paid in months. Do you know anybody who hasn’t been paid?”
“Everything is on time,” Purdeep translated.
There was no security and following Purdeep, we flagged down other men, finding others who spoke Hindi. We drew attention to ourselves, which made me nervous, but seemed to embolden the workers. Someone informed Purdeep that an approaching man, another south Asian, was the camp foreman. We did our best to ignore him, but he just stood back.
By this time, a crowd of between thirty and forty men surrounded us. They began shouting out stories, voicing complaints, talking over each other. Some smiled, others grew agitated as they aired one grievance after another. Others stood by and wagged their heads from side to side in silent agreement. Conditions were rough, they said. Most worked ten-hour days and were still in debt bondage to the agencies they paid up front to bring them over. Three men in that single camp had committed suicide last year.
“The payments are okay, though?” I asked Purdeep. “Please let them know that we’ve been hearing about them.”
“They keep an advance of the salary,” Purdeep translated, above the comingling of shouts. “They hold back three months’ worth of salary at the company,” he said.
What about passports?
“Everyone, the company keeps them.”
Other complaints emerge. Many say they were promised 700 dirhams a month (at that time around $190) by Indian recruiters back in India. But all any of them receive is 400. Some take advances from the company to make ends meet: another way to enter the debt spiral.
Talk turned to safety and health care.
“Like, if he’s feeling sick, then they ask him not to take a medical leave or they mark him absent for three days,” Purdeep translated.
What about injuries? I asked.
“Company is not responsible if any injuries, anything happens.”
“What about in cases of death?”
“They say there’s nothing,” Purdeep said, translating. “If you’re dead, you’re dead. It’s like worse than animals they treat them.”
One man told the story of the time a company man came around handing out white sheets of paper, asking the men to write their complaints on the sheet of paper. The other men nod along. Anyone who raised a legitimate complaint, they say, got sacked.
The shouts were escalating. A recurring gripe was the camp’s condition. They were sleeping ten to a room; Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis are thrown together, a cause of fighting. Friday there was no running water, and the kitchen facilities were down. “They’re talking about the camp condition and how this doesn’t look like they are in Dubai,” Purdeep says.
The chaos of Dubai’s hidden underclass is clearest at the consulates of countries who supply Dubai’s manpower. They manage the affairs of hundreds of thousands of guest workers who flow in and out of Dubai, legally or illegally.
I visited the Indian consulate. My taxi driver was from Ethiopia. Like many a New York taxi driver, he has a wife and kid back home. I asked him if he wants to move them here with him and he said no. It’s too expensive and the visas are a hassle.
At the consulate, a long line of sun-baked workers had formed outside the locked gates. It’s lunch time and no one was allowed in. The heat was brutal, I could feel the sweat beading and rolling down my back. There were dozens of Indian men waiting, all dressed in nicer shirts for their trip to the embassy, most of them untucked. It’s too hot to tuck. Along the curb, men sat and waited under the meager shade of some small trees.
One man offered me a different perspective. He didn’t understand workers who showed up and then complained or absconded. He explained that workers who arrive expected more money because a certain amount is always taken out for food. It was a different scene than at the Philippine consulate. There was no refugee camp. Security was tighter. I could never sneak onto the grounds.
An Indian official who asked not to be named said that back home consular affairs were run by eight different government bureaus, none of which were integrated. It was little wonder, then, that so many workers fell through the cracks.
I’ve come to view the Burj as a symbol of everything wonderful and terrible about Dubai, wrapped neatly into an iconic arabesque.
It became clear that there was very little they can do to prevent the abuses that land so many mistreated and illegal workers at their doorstep. The consulate has no legal jurisdiction. The most it could do was draw attention to companies who abused their Indian workers. In the worst cases, particularly with bigger companies, the consulate could effectively blacklist the company by refusing to permit Indian nationals to work for it.
Every legal worker has to come through the consulate, so, theoretically, this was a nice stick to wield at companies like Besix or Arabtec, which depend upon thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. But, given the number of illegals in the country, and the immensity of the problem, there’s only so much the consulate can prove, and even less that it can do.
It was possible to buy souvenirs of the Burj Dubai, long before it was completed. Walter Benjamin once wrote that the souvenir derives its worth from an “extinguished experience.” But what does one make of a souvenir for a thing that doesn’t yet exist?
I picked up one of my own: a miniature plastic Burj Dubai, just a few inches high. In the weeks after I bought it, its tip was broken off by the Filipina housecleaner who used to clean my friends’ apartment once a week. Rather than an “extinguished experience,” it contained an imagined experience. As such, I’ve come to look at it as a tiny work of abstract art: Packed somewhere within its complex polymer strings lies Dubai logic—where manufactured hype is the norm. Where, over time, one becomes quite used to passing large construction site billboards that read “The Bin Ladin Group: Sorry for the inconvenience.”
After six years of construction, the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest man-made structure, opened on January 4th, amid a decidedly different climate from the one in which it was begun. With its stunning height achievement built on the back of abused workers, a tradition for monuments dating from before the pyramids and the Great Wall. I’ve come to view the Burj as a symbol of everything wonderful and terrible about Dubai, wrapped neatly into an iconic arabesque. Like any object worthy of attention, the Burj contains multitudes. Major companies—Samsung, Emaar, Arabtec, Besix (part of Orascom), Armani (which plans to open a boutique hotel in the tower), to name a few—are involved in its construction.
Switzerland’s Schmidlin handled the cladding. German-based Putzmeister and locally-based Unimix handled the concrete. Mashreqbank psc, Emiratres Bank International, and Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank provided the contracting finance. Chicago-based Skidmore Owings and Merrill designed the tower. Turner Construction International is the project manager.
But as the Burj serves as Dubai’s totem, it is also like the city, a glimpse of the globalized stratified future. Like the Burj itself, Dubai’s sparkling image of power, money and hubris, rests on a foundation of fear, desperation and violence.
Austin Considine is a writer currently living in Indianapolis, where he is working on a documentary film.