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Stagnant wages dash hopes of UAE migrants

Labourers say their wages have barely changed in three decades, while the cost of living has skyrocketed.

Last updated: 12 May 2014 09:34
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Malik Amanullah has spent 30 years living in a squalid labour camp in Dubai [Michael Dickison/Al Jazeera]

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Every day for 30 years, Malik Amanullah has dreamed of going home to his family. But his pay has been stagnant - shrinking, in fact - while the city around him has ballooned in wealth and glamour.

"Dubai has changed. I am not changed," says the 55-year-old steel fixer from Pakistan. A migrant worker for three decades, Amanullah sits up on his bunk bed, his head in a black beanie and his left eye grey with blindness. He shares a room in a labour camp with five others from his Pakistani village.

By his bed, on a low communal shelf, are a shared bowl of onions, a couple of cracked eggs, a litter of empty plastic bottles and a cockroach crawling around a lonely carton of milk, warm and fetid without refrigeration.


RELATED: Dubai's striking workers in their own words


"I'm 30 years here," says Amanullah, who supervises apprentices at construction sites.

Malik Amanullah has been a migrant worker in Dubai for decades [Michael Dickison/Al Jazeera]
As a senior, skilled worker, he earns 1,200 dirhams ($327) a month - just 200 dirhams more than he would have made for the work in 1984, the year he arrived from Pakistan, he says. The increase falls far below rising prices, which have more than tripled in the UAE, according to IMF inflation data.

Inflation-adjusted incomes for workers in Amanullah's class of skilled labour have shrunk by three-fifths since 1984. Meanwhile, unskilled labourers have seen their incomes rise from 600 dirhams ($163) 30 years ago, to 750 dirhams ($204) a month now, Amanullah and others in his camp told Al Jazeera.

Faced with stagnant wages in the face of the city's overall growth and inflation, Dubai's labouring classes have begun to speak out. Impoverished migrant workers form the backbone of the UAE economy, with up to a million foreign labourers bound to contractors for their livelihoods and legal standing. They are barred from finding new employers once they arrive in the country, and risk deportation and arrest by protesting working and living conditions.

Seventy workers at Dubai's largest construction firm were arrested in 2011 for instigating protests. Last year, thousands at the firm participated in a strike over pay.

Ivan Szelenyi, dean of social sciences at New York University Abu Dhabi, has surveyed hundreds of former and potential UAE migrant labourers in Pakistan. Most do not see any wage increases, however long they may stay in the country, he says, but the reality is that they have been driven abroad by sheer necessity.

"In Pakistan, they've been displaced from their traditional ways of life. They don't have sufficient incomes. It isn't for the opportunity of a higher income [that they migrate]; it's the only way to sustain their lives. It's a survival strategy," Szelenyi told Al Jazeera. The labourers' families often push them to go abroad, and their rewards include a quickly rising stock in the marriage market, he added.


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The Dubai Economic Council's chief economic counsellor, Abdelrazaq Alfaris, says the workers' main concern is how much money they are able to send home.

"What is important for migrant workers is not the nominal wage per se, but other factors… most importantly, the exchange rates between the currencies of the host and home countries, since most of these labourers send the bulk of their salaries back to their families," Alfaris told Al Jazeera. 

This culture of impunity is driven by the failure of the state to enforce laws to have any deterrent effect, and perpetuates the scale of exploitation. They're going to have to send a couple [of employers] to jail to make a difference.

- Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch researcher

Mohammed Jindran, managing director of Overseas Labour Supply, a recruitment firm in the UAE, recently told the Reuters news agency that stagnant wages were beginning to dissuade potential workers. "Companies have not increased wages. We are feeling the bite while recruiting… no workers are willing to come to the Gulf on the salaries offered here," Jindran said.

Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas McGeehan says illegal recruitment tactics and exploitation are compounding these economic problems. Employers routinely confiscate passports and pay wages below what was first promised, he noted. Migrant workers are also frequently charged illegal recruitment fees, a debt burden that can take years to repay.

"This culture of impunity is driven by the failure of the state to enforce laws to have any deterrent effect, and perpetuates the scale of exploitation," McGeehan told Al Jazeera. "They're going to have to send a couple [of employers] to jail to make a difference."

McGeehan, who has been an outspoken critic of labour conditions in the UAE, says he was blacklisted earlier this year from visiting the country to carry out his research. Another HRW official was also barred from entering the UAE in January.

On a Friday night in the glitzy Dubai Marina, tourists strike poses for their spouses' cameras, while vendors sell smartphones gleaming with wide, bright screens. Nearby, commuters strut in high heels on elevated metro platforms.


IN PICTURES: Qatar's construction workers


Driving towards Amanullah's labour camp in the outskirts of an industrial area, however, there is a different mood. There, Dubai's ubiquitous orange street lights go dark, and a rumbling tanker carries sewage away from blocks of residences. There are heavy metal doors on the threshold of every bedroom, while crumbling, blackened portable stoves line the broken counters of a communal kitchen. Soggy cigarette butts soak in a bathroom sink.

"I want to go home," says Amanullah, who hopes that by drawing attention to his situation, he can help change the fate of future labourers in the country. "I thought I'd go back after two to three years and spend all the time with my family."

Instead, he's spent 30 years living in this labourers' accommodation.

"I want to visit somewhere, but then I think about my family, and 12 or 13 dirhams [$3.50] for transport isn't [good] for me to spend," Amanullah says. "Life is here, my bed."

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Al Jazeera
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