BY AMANDA KLOER
Yesterday, Dubai, the economic center of the United Arab Emirates, did what any struggling economy on the verge of a painful collapse would do. It unveiled what is now the world’s tallest skyscraper, to be known as Burj Khalifa Bin Zayed after the president of the United Arab Emirates. And of course, this building was constructed in the most logical of places — the middle of the freakin’ desert. So how does an economically troubled country build the world’s tallest building in the middle of a desert? Unfortunately, all signs point to slave labor.
Saying Dubai has a problem with slavery and labor exploitation is like saying Tiger Woods has a problem with fidelity (and incidentally, he also has a problem with some labor concerns around his Dubai golf course). Dubai regularly imports poor migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Kuwait, and other countries where workers are desperate for income. Human Rights Watch found that many of these workers toil 12 hours a day, six days a week. They endure extreme desert temperatures that have led to illness and in some cases, death. Their substandard housing usually involves sleeping up to eight men to a room. And for all this work, researchers say migrant workers in Dubai average only $175 a month — less than $0.60 an hour. Since Dubai has no minimum wage laws, workers have little course of action against abusive and exploitative employers.
In addition to exploitative conditions, a number of indicators of full-fledged slavery have been found among migrant construction workers. Some workers have come to Dubai by means of debt bondage and indentured servitude. Others have had wages withheld and passports taken away “for security reasons.” Slavery and exploitation in Dubai are the old and dirty parts of an otherwise shining city.
That Dubai Tower, as the building is being called until its official naming, was built by slaves and exploited workers shouldn’t be surprising. The costs of such a construction process are astronomical — the materials, engineers, supplies, media blitzes, and not the mention making the desert inhabitable for workers. So where can you safely cut costs? Not in the building materials or construction, unless you want an embarrassing and deadly collapse. And certainly not on the PR and media, if you’re trying to rebuild your image as an international economic center. So you cut costs on the workers salaries and housing by hiring poor and desperate people and preventing them from leaving when they realize how little money they’ll actually be making. For a more in-depth look into the lives of workers in Dubai, there’s a great BBC video on this issue here.
Dubai Tower is being hailed as a reminder and celebration of human accomplishment. But what have we really accomplished? Enslaving our fellow humans to drag steel through the desert? Destroying families around the world so we can weld massive metal beams together? Driving workers to illness, depression, and death to create a structure that pierces and interrupts the beautiful, natural skyline across the Middle East? If that’s the case, then I’m not in the mood the celebrate, Dubai.
Photo credit: Keeping It Real