Jobless laborers in Dubai are stuck

Asian workers eat food during a break from their work on a construction site in Dubai. Low-paid Asian workers who toil long days erecting the city's skyscrapers have become the latest victims of the global financial crisis as companies have run short of business and money.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: On the program yesterday, we reported on the plight of some of the white collar expatriates in Dubai. As the once booming economy there retreats, foreign workers are getting laid off -- and, thrown out of the country. But one group of foreigners is suffering an even worse fate. Some of the South Asian laborers who built the city-state have lost their jobs and can't go home.

From Dubai, Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports.


Stephen Beard: Selling spices in the souk, or dealing in gold along the Wharf, Indians have lived and worked in Dubai for more than a century. The Indian rupee was legal tender here before the local currency, the dirham. But it was the construction boom over the past decade and a half that swelled Dubai's South Asian population dramatically. More than half a million workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh came to build this city. Now the boom has fizzled out. It's some of these South Asian men who are bearing the brunt of the downturn.

Roger Trow: We had one case where there were 26 men from Bangladesh. They had just been recruited, they just arrived here. The company became insolvent. And the owners ran away, leaving them here.

Roger Trow is a British expatriate. He runs a charity in Dubai which helps Asian labourers in trouble. He says many of them have been marooned as the construction companies that brought them here have gone bust.

Trow: They don't have any work. They don't have any means. There's nothing like welfare here. And people don't know what to do.

Beard: We're talking about hundreds or are we talking about thousands?

Trow: Thousands, thousands, thousands.

I've come with Roger and a translator to a district called Satwa. We're in a ramshackle compound fenced in with rusty sheets of corrugated iron. Half a mile away we can see some of the city's multi-billion dollar skyscrapers brightly-lit and glittering in the dusk. Some of the men who built those towers now live here in single-storey squalor.

Trow: And they're living in very degraded conditions. This is what they're reduced to.

We've been invited in to one of their houses. Dozens of men are milling about preparing food. Our translator is taken aback.

Translator: They have made a makeshift kitchen and everybody is pitching in but from the number of people that he's saying are staying here, I don't see how these guys can survive on such little food.

Or live in such a small house. We're told that in these seven rooms are a 150 men. Forty of them have been laid off and depend on the meagre wages of those that are still working. Raj Jindran is 29 years old and comes from Tamil Nadu in southern India.

Translator [for Raj Jindran]: He says now: no work, no money for food, nowhere to stay. I stay with these people who are here because, you know, they're friends. And I can't -- I just hope there's some way of somebody coming, you know, to save us.

The men have tried but failed to find work in Dubai. Now they just want the companies that brought them here to keep their promise to fly them home.

Translator [for Jindran]: What he's trying to say is that we've come to such a situation that if we can get a ticket back we'll be very happy. Because we've had enough living these kind of conditions.

Beard: They want to go home.

Ttranslator: They want to go home.

Roger Trow says the big reputable construction companies in Dubai are fulfilling their obligations. Since the downturn began they have flown home many thousands of laid off staff. But many small Indian and Pakistani companies operating in Dubai have abandoned their workers here. The Indian and Pakistani authorities seem indifferent to their fate.

Trow: It's a no win situation. And it's tragic. There's no other word for it. It's a tragedy here in Dubai.

The government of Dubai prides itself on its free market principles. But the problem of the stranded migrants gets worse everyday. The government may have to intervene.

In Dubai this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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