34,000 blue-collar construction workers employed by “Arabtec” in the “United Arab Emirates” are said to have returned to work after a three-week strike (14 November). However, the only sources for this are the company they work for and the UAE regime’s official press agency… Either way this was an extremely important strike by a group of low-paid migrant workers.
The workers are working on a variety of construction projects including “Burj Dubai”, the tallest building in the world, being built by a consortium of the Dubai-based “Arabtec” and Belgian and South Korean companies. The low-paid workers had been demanding a pay rise variously reported as 28% and 70%; the employers said they were offering 14%. All sources of information in the UAE are subject to stringent censorship.
The “United Arab Emirates” is an historical anomaly: a collection of feudal statelets preserved in aspic by British “protection” lasting from the mid-nineteenth century until 1971. Gaining control of their own economy after the departure of the British Army, the emirs became rich on oil royalties and diversified into tourism and banking. Now the UAE, still under absolute dictatorship, is engaged in the largest construction project in the world, a series of artificial islands in novelty shapes to provide holiday homes for foreign capitalists.
To extract oil, build luxury hotels and villas, and service the super-rich, the UAE, a small and sparsely-populated country, requires cheap migrant labour. Migrant workers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent but also including significant number from Iran, the Philippines, sub-Saharan Africa and from other Arab countries, now constitute between 75 and 80 percent of the population, the highest figure in the world by far (no-one really knows the exact figure because many workers are working “illegally”). 5% of the entire population are domestic servants, many others clean the banks and hotels, and huge numbers work in construction, hired and fired whenever their employers like.
“Illegal” workers, many of them domestic servants, are paid even less than “legal” workers and have no security at all. This is found convenient by employers wanting to save money. A new police crackdown has just been announced to arrest domestic workers. If they are caught these workers face fines and “administration fees” amounting to between three and fifteen months pay even for a relatively well-paid migrant worker — so detemined is the UAE state to squeeze the last drop out of them.
The reaction of the middle class to this beggars belief. “Residents, especially those families whose spouses are both employed, said that they are finding it extremely difficult to adjust with the sudden decision on the part of the domestic helpers [i.e.to work at night to avoid being arrested]”. “The domestic help who comes to work for us twice a week is a Sri Lankan. We pay him 200 dirhams a month which is far cheaper than sponsoring a proper maid. It works for us and him as well,” was the comment of one callous rich housewife.
These workers are not entitled to become citizens or to many civil rights. They are paid a fraction of what the fifth of the population who are counted as “Emirians” earn. They live in special quarters of grossly overcrowded and substandard housing (many in barracks) positioned miles from the districts inhabited by the “Emirians”, European and American professionals, tourists and wealthy foreigners. The striking workers are housed in 36 company-run “labour camps” (sic — that really is what they are called) across the UAE.
Human Rights Watch has recently condemned “abusive labour practices” in the UAE and describes the working conditoons of migrants as “less than human”. Health and safety precautions are non-existent, especially in the construction industry: last Thursday at least seven migrant workers were killed and at least thirty-six injured when a bridge they were working on collapsed. The country is so dependent on migrant labour and the living standards of the “Emirians” and wealthy foreign residents so dependent on the virtual slave-labour conditions of four-fifths of the population that the situation in the UAE today is directly comparable to apartheid South Africa.
Of course there are no “race laws” in the UAE, but the regime makes sure migrant workers, however long they have lived there, have no chance of becoming citizens with full civil rights.
Really the “United Arab Emirates” is not a “country” at all and certainly not “Arab” (probably more than half the total population is Indian) but a cartel for importing migrant labour, with the powers of a state to set their terms and conditions of work, repress resistance, and ensure their labour remains dirt cheap. However, migrant workers in the UAE are fighting for their rights in every way possible.
Strikes and unions are illegal, but this huge strike is the culmination of a number of self-organised migrant workers’ actions including riots of over 2,500 workers in March last year and a series of construction strikes last month involving thousands of workers. In response to both these waves of action, the regime has “urged” construction companies to “review” their rates of pay (!) and enacted improvements in working conditions which have not, however, been enforced.
The workers fighting for their most basic rights against this monstrous and outmoded feudal dictatorship and its many capitalist partners in crime need our support!