- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

The world’s economic shadows caught up with Employee No. 861 at the lip of a construction site on Dubai’s desert outskirts. The foreman tapped on the dump truck’s window and broke the news: The project was slowing, and fewer workers were needed. Muhammad Munir Bahadar’s next paycheck would be his last.

Such scenes have been repeated in millions of variations from corner offices to factory lines as the global economic landslide rumbles on.

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But in places such as Dubai - built on the backs of imported laborers who banked on the promise of steady construction jobs - there is a distinct brand of desperation: A rising number of low-wage foreign workers, like Mr. Bahadar, have become stranded with neither the chance to leave nor the immediate prospect to resume work.

“We are the ghosts of the financial crisis,” said the 36-year-old Pakistani, fingering the expired work site ID that he keeps in his wallet. “It has killed us, but we still roam the streets.”

Mr. Bahadar now gets by with some small savings and what he can borrow from fellow Pakistanis who still have their jobs. His last remittance to his family back home came from his last check in December.

At least, he said, he still has a bed at no cost in the company’s labor camp: a series of shabby, motel-size rooms packed with bunk beds, cheap suitcases and work boots lined up outside. But he doesn’t know how long this will last if he remains jobless.

Worker advocacy groups, including the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, have stepped up pressure for wider protections covering the hundreds of thousands of unskilled construction workers, mostly from South Asia, who flooded Dubai and other Gulf boomtowns and now face the fallout from leaner times.

The demands include ending the illegal but common practice of companies holding onto workers’ passports and effectively blocking their chances of looking for other jobs under a rigid sponsorship system.

“The system needs to be revamped. Otherwise, expect the exploitation to continue,” said Azfar Khan, a senior economist and expert on Gulf labor issues at the International Labor Organization.

Officials at the United Arab Emirates Labor Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Mr. Khan noted some steps by Emirates authorities to improve housing conditions in company-run labor camps and enforce codes that prohibit employers from keeping the workers’ passports.

As the Gulf faces its first real economic squeeze of the decade, the U.N. agency is taking a survey of living and working conditions in the Emirates, said Mr. Khan. There is a category for people such as Mr. Bahadar in an economic purgatory: the entrenched.

There is no clearinghouse to determine how many other workers such as Mr. Bahadar are in the Emirates, but it could easily be in the thousands and climbing.

Proleads, a Dubai-based market research firm, predicted in a February report that nearly 53 percent of the Emirates’ construction projects - worth an estimated $582 billion - have been put on hold and more may be frozen this year.

“To us, Dubai meant work and money to send home,” Mr. Bahadar said. “All I can send home to Pakistan now is bad news.”

Mr. Bahadar turned in his hard hat and dump truck keys in late December. He said his employer, construction subcontractor ABE Hayat, retained his passport and told him that he would be called back if the project picks up pace.

That looks unlikely in the coming months. His job - hauling away rocks and debris - was at a planned retail-residential complex that’s part of a new ring of mega-projects pushing out into the dunes. Many of the developments, however, are now on slower tracks or still just blueprints.

His days now are spent drinking tea and gossiping with other Pakistani castoffs from the economic downturn in their company-run labor camp.

On the horizon rise the glass skyscrapers, luxury malls and hotels the workers helped build - places where high-rollers drop the equivalent of Mr. Bahadar’s $650 monthly pay on a single meal.

The skyline is still growing. But the visions have become suddenly downsized by the economic crisis.

Last month, the state-owned builder Nakheel said it was suspending preliminary work on a tower planned as the world’s tallest - pushing past the more than 160 stories at the nearly completed Burj Dubai. Dozens of other highly touted projects have been placed in the slow lane.

“I don’t need numbers to tell this story,” said Mr. Bahadar, who already has a gray-flecked beard. “I am living it.”

In late 2006, Mr. Bahadar took a loan for 200,000 rupees (about $2,500) to come to the Emirates. Friends from his village near Lahore had arrived a few years before and were sending back money every month.

Mr. Bahadar surrendered his passport to the company, but he didn’t care. His pay was far better than anything he could have earned in Pakistan and he could send most of it to his family back home: his wife, their two children and his sister and husband.

Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who follows Gulf labor affairs, said the Emirates has made some “positive steps on paper” to end violations such as retaining workers’ passports.

“In terms of really good government follow-through, however, we are still disappointed,” he said.

At night now, Mr. Bahadar walks along a sandy track to a shopping center that’s etched in neon and flashing lights. He gets by mostly on bread and pakora, deep-fried snacks popular in South Asia. He buys the cheapest variety: onion for 1 dirham (about 30 cents).

“I thought the work would never end,” he said. “This was Dubai, after all. There was construction everywhere. Everyone I knew back home wanted to come to make money.”

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