Power Marketplace’s public service journalism 💙 Give Now
The Middle East @ Work

Building fast on cheap labor

Stephen Beard Mar 11, 2008
The Middle East @ Work

Building fast on cheap labor

Stephen Beard Mar 11, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports now on Dubai’s supply of cheap labor.

STEPHEN BEARD: At Jumeira Beach a group of well-heeled visitors boards a small bus for a property tour of Dubai.

Guide: Here, we have here, on your right hand it’s Spanish design. For a four bedrooms it’s ten million.

Or $3 million U.S. The property here sells at hefty western prices but for many of the migrant labourers who built it the pay and conditions are Third World.

The air-conditioned comfort of the property tour contrasts sharply with a scene on the other side of town.


Migrant workers fight to get on one of the few public buses to take them back to their labour camp. They’ve been in town buying food to supplement the rations provided by their employers. The angry bus driver shouts abuse at his unwelcome passengers.


This is where the workers’ bus is heading. Sonapour — a vast, dusty labour camp on the outskirts of Dubai. Sonapour means City of Gold. But here there are just acres of shabby single story concrete blocks. They house an astonishing number of people. At least 250,000 migrant workers. A large chunk of the country’s total population of two million. Mohammed is a local photographer who always finds this place a shock when he comes here.

Mohammed: It’s only about four or five miles from the commercial district of Dubai and, you know, even though it’s that close, two worlds apart completely. You have majority of people here earning less than $200 a month.

The workers are required to live in camps like this. I’ve come here to talk to some of them with Mohammed who speaks Hindi. We’ve walked into one compound housing 5,000 labourers. We slipped through the gate, past the security check point which was unmanned and into one of the hundreds of small rooms.

Beard: So, how many people living here?

Labourer: Six. Six, yes.

Beard: That’s quite small, isn’t it? About 10 or 12 feet by 12 feet.

Mohammed: I should say so, yes. To think that you have six people living here day in day out. I mean you just… Look, there is three bunk beds, you know, sleeping two each. It’s a very incredibly cramped room and they all have their meals here. A place where maybe two people can just stand up. This is where dinner for six people is made in these different buckets and pots and pans.

But the labourers told Mohammed their biggest problem is money. They earn less than $40 for a basic 72 hour week. That’s 12 hours a day for six days.

Mohammed: They feel they are being treated the same way as animals are being treated. He says life is very, very hard here.

Their life has become harder because Dubai’s currency, the dirham, is pegged to the dollar. The slump in the U.S. currency has dragged down the value of their wages. They send less money home to support their families, the main reason for coming to Dubai. Many feel trapped here.

Mohammed: He says he has taken a loan to come here. So, how will he go back without paying the loan? There will be a problem.

Beard: One of the young men in this room is 23 year old Shamseer Singh. He’s supporting his mother and seven siblings back in the Punjab while struggling to pay off $1,800 he borrowed there. It could be many years before he can afford to go home.

Mohammed: As far as he’s concerned, he says, life for him is over.

Beard: At 23?

Mohammed: At 23, that’s right.

Some of the workers are better off than others. Some of the European contractors pay more and provide better facilities than some of the Middle Eastern companies. The Government of Dubai is trying to improve matters overall. It’s drafting a modern labour law laying down minimum standards of working and living conditions. It’s even mulling over a minimum wage. But Chris Davidson who lived for several years in this city and has written two books about it says the sharp contrast between rich and poor is inevitable.

Chris Davidson: Dubai, trying to become this global city, has essentially brought two sides together. It’s created an incredibly stark fault line between First World and Third World.

But the faultline is moving. As the Indian economy booms more Indian workers are finding jobs at home. And word has spread about some of the problems in Dubai.It’s becoming much tougher for this city to recruit labour in South Asia. It’s having to look further and further afield to China, to Vietnam and to the Philippines.

In Dubai this is Steven Beard for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.  

This is NOT a paywall. 

Marketplace is community-funded public service journalism. Give in any amount that works for you – what matters is that you give today.