M worked as an architect on construction sites in Dubai. He told Solidarity what daily working life is like on those sites.
The major difference between a construction site in Dubai and one in Europe is the number of hours that they work. The workers are present on site from 7am to 7pm — twelve hours a day for six days a week, sometimes seven.
They usually only have short breaks. The formal site regulations are all normal by international standards, but the hours are not. And the wages are completely sub-standard. The workers get £600 or £700 a month for 70 or 80 hours a week.
The workers are at the mercy of their employers. When they enter the country, their boss gets their passport and gives them a working visa. If the employer isn't satisfied with a worker, he or she can be terminated with as little as one month's notice and shipped out of the country, because they lose their visa.
The workers are scared. There are no laws to defend them, there are no trade unions, no bargaining, no negotiating. This goes for other countries in the Gulf region too.
The workers live in labour camps with up to 20 people in one room with bunk-beds. The BBC has made a few documentaries which shows the way the construction workers live. A bus picks up the workers from the labour camp, drops them off at the site for 12 hours and then picks them up and takes them back. That's it. It goes on and on and on, day after day.
During the summer months the temperature becomes very high. It can go up to 50. [In Australia, regulations advise construction workers should have a 30 minute break in every hour if the temperature is above 34, and work should stop if it's above 36]. In Dubai, workers get a longer lunch break in the very hot months, of around three hours, during which they usually sleep in the shade.
In the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, also, the workers are allowed to finish work at 2pm or 3pm, so it is more or less a half day. They get the a full day's pay, but it is still peanuts.
The construction companies are mostly locally-owned, and the majority of workers on a site will be employed by the main contractor [unlike on a site in Europe, where most will be employed by sub-contractors].
The top managers on the sites are usually Europeans or Australians or Americans, and automatically their salaries are maybe 20 times more than standard workers. Even for the same work, an architect from Europe will get three times the salary of an architect from the Philippines.
The middle ranks, the engineers, surveyors, technicians, and tradespeople, are mostly Indians, Filipinos and Arabs, usually Egyptians or Palestinians.
There are many more labourers than there would be on a site in Britain, maybe three times as many. On a site where I worked, we had over 1000 workers. And the managers push to get jobs finished very quickly — in three to four years, when in Britain the same job would take 10 years.
The working language of the sites is English, and each group of labourers is supervised by a foreman who speaks both English and the language of the labourers, who usually come from South Asia — Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Nepal.
The foremen are very tough and very rude to the workers. You can hear them swearing, shouting, and intimidating workers all the time.
They do that in order to keep their own position. They get paid more than the workers but their visa situation is the same.
They get the privilege of not doing manual work, and to keep their position they scream and shout abuse at the workers.