Famed for its reputation as a playground for the rich, Dubai has become synonymous with luxury. But the rich don’t want to physically build the towers they design – instead hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are hauled in from India, packed in dormitories, paid $1 an hour, and sent to work long days in the high desert heat. Ninety percent of Dubai’s private workforce are Asian migrant laborers. Human rights activists have rallied against this practice, calling it indentured servitude and modern-day slavery. Still, the construction continues and a million tourists a year enjoy their vacations. Unfortunately, however, to return home will not mean better working conditions for the Indians.
The Indian government has stated that its people are “a major source of manpower” globally. Businesses of the west outsource call centers and factories to India, employing some of its 1 billion people. However, there is such a surplus of labor that 100 million Indians are migrant laborers. Indians must leave their land to find employment, traveling to places like Singapore and the Middle East for work. The Indian government is proud of the people it lends out to foreign lands, issuing statements that announce their hopes that the migrant workers can maintain India’s reputation by having adequate skills. Less often does the Indian government evaluate whether its people are being exploited, because domestically the same exploitation occurs.
In 2006, media attention centred around Dubai’s questionable labor treatment after rallies by Indian workers at skyscraper construction sites and airport terminals cost $1 million in damages. But just because the truth about Dubai’s workforce was illuminated in the press, it does not mean anything significantly changed. Skyscrapers still met the deadlines they were to be built by, hotels are still open for business, and new developments are continually proposed. One advancement, however, passed by the UAE government, allows the migrant workers to unionize and collectively bargain. The watchful eye of human rights groups hopes to pressure the country to continue to enact such laws.
In the past year, there has been a 30% decline in Indian laborers traveling abroad for work. Much of this is due to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, to be held in Delhi in October. In preparation for the Games, the Indian government is building much infrastructure to accommodate athletic spectacles and impress visitors. The subway system is being expanded, stadiums are being built, and roads are being widened.
As the Games approach, more migrant workers are being pressed harder to complete construction. Workers are allowed to establish small shanty towns next to work sites, but as soon as a job is completed, they are kicked out by the police. Many laborers migrated to Delhi for work with the hope that a big city could increase their opportunities. Instead, however, they have found an unwelcoming city of pollution, where they live in poor conditions with no clean water or electricity. As the UAE government responded to media pressure to better the conditions of workers, a Delhi High Court recently released a report in which they cited their discontent with the treatment of Commonwealth Games workers.
The rich flock to the grand buildings of Dubai, and soon they will head to enjoy the Commonwealth Games, able to avoid thinking of the hidden exploited workers. Though civil rights advancements are made, progress is slow. At home or abroad, Indian migrant laborers suffer from unhygienic work conditions, overcrowded living situations, and failure of wage payment.