Last week, I ran across a fascinating article on the society and economy of Dubai: The dark side of Dubai by Johann Hari. (It’s from 2009, but no less interesting because of that.)
The whole shining metropolis — recently featured in MI4 — is built on a horrifying foundation of slave labor:
Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. “To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell,” he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal’s village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they’d pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don’t like it, the company told him, go home. “But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,” he said. “Well, then you’d better get to work,” they replied.
Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.
Then, at the air-conditioned luxury of the mall:
I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. “I love it here!” she says. “The heat, the malls, the beach!” Does it ever bother you that it’s a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. “I try not to see,” she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.
That kind of evasion is bad enough. Even worse is the evasion required by the Westerners who actively participate in this slavery:
…one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.
It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.
In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is “terrifying” for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. “They say – ‘Please, I am being held prisoner, they don’t let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.’ At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn’t interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn’t eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I’m powerless.”
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. “But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: ‘You came here to work, not sleep!’ Then one day I just couldn’t go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn’t give me my wages: they said they’d pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn’t know anybody here. I was terrified.”
One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. “Well, how could I?” she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. “I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything,” she says.
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. “Oh, the servant class!” she trilled. “You do nothing. They’ll do anything!”
The psychological contortions required to willingly relocate to a slave society, then actively participate in such slavery, is just mind-boggling. As one woman was quoted in the article, “All the people who couldn’t succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they’re rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I’ve never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world.” That mentality — delusional and incompetent yet ambitious — seems to be fertile ground for embracing the practice of slavery.
I’ve already quoted too much of the article, but so much else in it is deeply fascinating — and heartbreaking. So go read the whole article. You won’t be sorry to know what “exploitation of the workers” and “environmental destruction” really means.
Finally, my friend Kirez posted the following comment on Facebook, which I’m including here with his permission:
I recall reading this article when it was published. I witnessed many of these labor camps firsthand; it was a horrifying experience.
It’s not easy to see if you’re there simply as a tourist. But even when I wasn’t exploring where I wasn’t supposed to be, if I simply went into a grocery near one of these labor camps where the pakistanis and indians and burmese in large groups would go to buy their groceries, the racism (in these places even more than most others) was so palpable, it seemed a theatre spectacle: I would walk into a store, where gangs of pakistanis or indians were trudging along, and the (Indian) owners of the stores would come running, falling over themselves, bowing to me and calling me sir, and offering to help me with my shopping and finding me special products or deals… for no reason whatsoever except that I was white and had honored their store with my presence.
I first noticed the workers when I was acting as a tourist, and went out to the construction sites of the islands to look at the buildings (I saw a lot of really bad construction practices… not only safety issues, which were normal, but severely faulty lack of fortification and structural issues, like neglecting rebar through cinderblock walls, etc.) I saw buses full of pakistani workers coming to and from the work sites. I knew the city (Dubai) pretty well, but these workers didn’t live in the city; the buses went out of the city into the desert. At first I simply watched the buses coming and going and felt very sorry for the workers, because the heat was overbearing for us in an air conditioned luxury car… and I could see them slumped against windows, sleeping, in the burning sunshine. These images burned into my mind, and caused me to start noticing the shanty towns in the desert outside the city. Eventually I would visit several; later I would meet the workers as they worked on projects where I was working — later I even hired some workers to build pullup bars, squat racks, jump boxes and other equipment for me.
The cases of abuse were innumerable; it seemed to be the norm.
But I was overworked with my own projects… in a final, ultimately painful and frustrating insult to my powerlessness there, I learned that the mysterious traffic of men to the apartment underneath ours was explained by the slavery of a 9-year-old girl. They had kept her very effectively hidden from me for months, while I had watched men come to the apartment in singles or couples at all hours of the night, but I never saw them leave with bundles, never smelled anything, never saw weapons… I didn’t get it. I had only 72 hours left in the country when a pakistani tried to steal some of my exercise equipment (outside — this attempted theft was very unusual), and the woman who kept the girl, downstairs, came running out of her apartment to tell me, in arabic, that they were stealing my equipment… and the 9-year-old girl appeared in the door she had left open. I then got to watch local police detectives bumble the investigation, while I was completing my work, packing my household, selling my possessions and preparing to depart.