Dubai's glitz lost in grim life

Migrant laborers have been hit hard since the city's construction boom came to a screeching halt.

By , Correspondent

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    Majestic architecture like the Burj Al Arab hotel makes Dubai sparkle, but a downturn in construction has migrant workers struggling.
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    Broken: Lured by success stories, migrants, such as this man working on a subway station, came in droves to Dubai. Their dreams of earning dowries for their daughters or paying off debts have been dealt a blow by abrupt layoffs.
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In Dubai's gritty Indian neighborhood of Karama, far from the luxury hotels and glitzy malls, laborers gather in dilapidated offices and speak of their shame.

The global economic recession and the construction slowdown have hit hard in the Middle East's most lavish metropolis. The massive construction boom of the last six years, which lured hundreds of thousands of expatriates, has come to a screeching halt.

Everyone from architects to marketing agents is losing jobs. But arguably, those suffering most are the migrant laborers who sold everything back home in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or elsewhere to come make money stacking bricks, watering lawns, and cleaning floors.

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"There has been a lot of press on how the recession is affecting the professional expats," notes Paul Dyer, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government. "But ... [low-skilled laborers] and their suffering have become practically invisible to us."

Gotham Lingaiah, a farmer with a fifth-grade education, says the recruiting agent who came to his Indian village two years ago promised riches in Dubai. His extended family borrowed from friends and neighbors to scrape together the 14,000 dirhams ($3,800) for secure passage, a visa, and work in Dubai. Mr. Lingaiah calculated he could repay the debt in two years and then start sending his earnings home.

When he arrived last year, however, he was sorely disappointed. Instead of earning 1,500 dirhams ($408) a month as promised, he was making 330 dirhams working long hours. But living sparingly, he sent a little money home every month.

In November, his project was canceled and he was told to leave. The debt he accrued coming here is still far from paid off. "I am so sorry I am here," he says.

Since migrant workers starting coming in force in the 1970s, there have been stories of workers hoodwinked by corrupt agents and unscrupulous contractors.

But there were also many success stories. Last year alone, migrants sent an estimated $45 billion in remittances to India, according to the World Bank.

Inspired by such success, laborers came here with big dreams. Lingaiah planned to save up for his sister's wedding back in Hyderabad, India. J. Anjaiah promised his daughters dowries and told his parents in India's Karimnagar Province that he would support them in their old age. Panjala Sureshkumar of Kerala wanted "to do something with myself ... [to] become someone."

Dubai disappointed them all.

Lingaiah's construction project was canceled. Mr. Anjaiah broke his foot in a fall and was fired from his gardening job. And Mr. Sureshkumar lost his cleaning job when the hotel he was working in closed two wings. Their work no longer required, they're now expected to disappear.

"At first it was fantastic," explains Anjaiah. But with no more profits to be made, he plans to return to Kerala and farm mangoes, a family tradition for generations. "I thought I could do something better. But I could not," he says.

For some, just getting home seems insurmountable – and shameful.

"I have nothing," Sureshkumar says quietly, holding his palms up. No money, not even a passport, which was confiscated by the agents who brought him here.

"It is a great shame to go home like this," admits Lingaiah. "But if I stay here, I fear I might go hungry or be thrown in jail. And then I will cause even graver disappointment to my family."

The government does little to remedy the problem, charges Nicholas McGeehan, who as a former oil company contractor in the Emirates from 2002-06 got insight on the issue from within the system.

"The government knows exactly what is going on, because the same guys who run the government own the construction companies and the developers," writes Mr. McGeehan by e-mail from Italy, where he runs an organization called Mafiwasta, which addresses migrant labor issues in the Gulf. He describes the government's treatment of migrants as "ruthless, arrogant, racist, and greedy."

Humaid bin Dimas, a Ministry of Labor spokesman, would "not confirm or deny any statistics" regarding treatment, visa cancellations, or departures from the country. But in a rare statement in April, the ministry said it had "put together a new strategy to improve living and working conditions for labourers," including an offensive against "unscrupulous foreign recruitment agencies."

In the meantime, concerned individuals such as McGeehan are trying to fill in the gaps. Devanapally Shashikala, an Indian doctor, runs a small private charity out of a third-floor apartment in Karama that provides healthcare, food, clothing, and sometimes plane tickets home to the needy migrants. K.V. Shamsudheen, a successful stock broker who started a charity called Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust in 2001, says that in addition to money, the laborers need motivation.

"They feel down and out, and they need to be reminded that it is up to them to get through this," he says. He hosts a popular motivational weekly radio program and also conducts workshops around the Gulf in which he talks about goal setting, saving, and time management.

"I tell them – you must hold your head high.... Do not cry."

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