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DUBAI: A Skyline Built by Slaves

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In today's Guardian, Nesrine Malik brings us heartbreaking, if not quite breaking, news from Dubai.

Tales of guest worker abuse in the Gulf states have circulated for quite some time, though the situation now appears even more dire.

Writes Malik:

Dubai is considered an emirate under a popular, liberal, benevolent and forward-looking ruling family that has managed to develop the economy and extend its hands to the outside world without compromising its culture or values. Nobody is naive enough to claim that capitalism does not claim casualties and create classes, or that expatriates from the sub-continent have not made happy and relatively lucrative lives in the region, but Dubai's name is becoming stained by the blood of migrant workers.

While wandering the lobby of her hotel for an ATM, Malik suddenly came upon a commotion in the lobby.

Some of the hotel staff were scurrying about, looking obviously distressed," she recalls. "I asked one of them if there was any trouble and he responded with a glossy smile. There was no trouble, madam, and was there anything he could help me with?

A few hours later, I discovered that there had indeed been trouble. A man – an Indian worker – had jumped from Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and a symbol of Dubai's prowess. It is a needle-shaped skyscraper which impales the bleak Dubai sky.

The man, apparently an Indian cleaner who had been denied a holiday, was scraped off the floor on which he landed on and life went back to normal. Tourists and expats lapped up the luxury and sunshine, while workers from south Asia, little moving dots on the facades of the buildings under construction throughout the city, were ferried in buses to and from their living quarters. A couple of days later, another Indian man jumped from Jumeirah Lake Towers.

Two suicides do not an epidemic make. But figures released by the Indian consulate in Dubai reveal a staggering two Indian guest worker suicides a week.

"I'm not saying we don't have a problem," Ali bin Abdulla al-Kaabi, the emirates' labor minister, told Jason DeParle of the New York Times in 2007. "There is a problem. We're working to fix it."

Sadly, it doesn't appear much has changed.

Until the discovery of oil in the late 1950s, DeParle explains, "there was little here but Bedouins and sand. To extract the oil and build a modern economy, the rulers imported a multinational labor force that quickly outnumbered native Arabs."

Today, workers from abroad make up 85% of Dubai's population and an astounding 99% of the workforce. Locals in Dubai, it seems, have become, in Nesrine Malik's opinion, "desensitised" to the plight of the emirate's guest workers.

As the body of the cleaner who had been denied a vacation was being taken away, Malik overheard a bystander remark, jokingly, "He's inaugurated the building."

Another marveled that it took all of ten months after the hotel's opening for the first tragedy to occur.

The inhumane conditions suffered by Dubai's labor force persist though they have not exactly been hidden:

But this sort of abuse is by no means limited to the Gulf.

It goes on in Singapore:


And yes, the United States:

Writing in the Independent in 2009, Johann Hari recounted a conversation with a 24 year-old Bangladeshi named Sahinal Monir.

"As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since," Hari wrote. "He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat -- where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees -- for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised.

His employer told Monir he was welcome to return home if he was unhappy.

"But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he replied.

The response?

"Well, then you'd better get to work."
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