Tuesday, 20 July 2010

This country is built with migrant sweat

The UAE has undergone tremendous urban development since it's formation in 1971. Small villages which once supported small pearl diving and date farming communities have grown into skyscraper laden cities with huge populations.

Money earned from the oil trade allowed the development, but it's the toil of the migrant population that has built the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Approximately 50% of the population is South Asian, mainly people from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. I tried to learn a bit of Arabic before I arrived, but that was pointless. Every nurse, shop worker and taxi driver you meet is a migrant. You'd do better to learn Urdu, Hindi or Tagalog. I wasn't expecting a situation like this.

You can't fail to notice development in Abu Dhabi. There are building sites every few metres. After a few days I began to notice that all the workers got on the same bus to go home at the end of their shift. Not a public bus, something similar to a grey school bus. You notice lots of these buses driving along the streets.

Later I found out that these workers all live in shared housing on the outskirts of the city. They get transported between work and home. Their "home" is a shared room with six or more other workers. They barely make any money and have to work six long days each week. What money they do make pays for the roti bread they eat and the rest is sent to their families. They're not forced to stay, but there aren't any job opportunities back home.

It's not just construction workers. It's the same for nurses, security staff, taxi drivers...

To make matters worse, there are barely any employment legislation to protect these workers. They are usually forced to give up their passports to their bosses and often have their salaries paid late. The employer sponsorship system makes it virtually impossible for the workers to visit home or to have relatives visit the UAE. Health and Safety on building sites is minimal. We joke about it in the UK but workers die out here.

We couldn't possibly judge because as a nation, England has exploited people in the past. But as individuals we really should be grateful for what we have in the West. We complain we cannot afford a new car or that our boss is making us work on Saturdays. We don't know how lucky we are.

I look into the bus transporting the workers and everyone is fast asleep from a ridiculously long shift. I speak to the taxi driver and he hasn't seen his family in several years. I'm sat within touching distance of the taxi driver but our worlds couldn't be further apart.

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living in the United Arab Emirates