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I have been made to work without any money for months. Now, for a month I’ve been suffering from a constant headache and wanted to visit a doctor to examine my condition. I asked my camp boss for $14 but he refused and told me to get back to work… After my death I want the company to pay all my salary dues to my family and repay the financial debt my family has incurred because of them.

-Arumugam Venketesan, 24, in his suicide note, “Worker borrowed to buy stamp for suicide letter,” Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.


CROSSINGS Promenades in the Arabian Desert

by Arko Datto


Since the beginning of my travels to Europe 13 years back, I have been fascinated with the bustling megalopolises of Arabia, skyscrapers glittering in the bright sunlight‌with the cold post apocalyptic vision of towering megaliths seen across the hazy abrasive heat. Education took me to various cities in Europe for long stints during the last seven years. Hating the interminable direct flights, I preferred connections with stopovers in Arabia. The flights usually leave India and then, after crossing the Arabian Sea, drop down directly into the myriad sandy hues of the Middle East. The strange turnpikes and crossings I chanced upon, during this descent, in the middle of the desert, were the first concrete reminders to the forlorn student leaving home that a stranger’s life lived in far-away lands was about to recommence. Thus began my almost decade long obsession with the Arab lands‌with their concrete cities mushrooming amidst the dunes after liquid gold turned their tide four decades back.


The modern civilization in Arabia was built with the sweat and grime of countless unremembered migrants, traveling from the southern climes of the Indian subcontinent and south-East Asia, lured by dreams of better lives for themselves and those they left behind…fellowmen from familiar lands, all setting forth westwards like me, towards their unknown destinies... … tricked by agents back home and cheated by the law of the land…lives lived on meagre food in unsanitary cramped quarters…women raped and locked away in dingy rooms, men dead from exhaustion or dehydration or both…lives where basic human rights are stripped away to their very core... Most of those that create, burning under the sweltering heat, do not get to see their beautiful creations.This story is a tribute to them, to those that toil under a merciless sun, so that Arabia might live.


The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems. Nothing. This isn’t a city, it’s a con-job. They lure you in telling you it’s one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it’s a medieval dictatorship.

- Karen. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


On March 21, 2006, thousands of construction workers rioted in Dubai, asking for better working conditions and better wages.

-Hassan M. Fattah, “In Dubai, an outcry from Asians for workplace rights,� The New York Times, March 26, 2006.


On that day, the buses were delayed for hours. The workers started to complain. The company’s security forces started to harass them and abuse them verbally. This provoked the rioting. The new workers were demanding pay raises.

- Human Rights Watch telephone interview with S. Kumar, Dubai, April 3, 2006.


In one of the biggest demonstrations in the country this year, on May 16, 2006, thousands of construction workers working for Besix, a Brussels-based company, went on strike for better wages (their wage was $4 a day) and better working conditions.

- Angela Giuffrida and Conrad Egbert, “Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labor?� Construction Week (Dubai), May 27, 2006.


We will not go back to work until our demands are met. We are being paid $106 per month and all we demand is that we are paid at least $163 per month. The company has offered a raise to those who have been employed [by Besix] for more than 10 years, but that is the minority of people here. We do not accept that.

-Strike Participant. Angela Giuffrida and Conrad Egbert, “Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labor?� Construction Week (Dubai), May 27, 2006.


“To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell.” 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 Monir, a 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


“That’s what we come for! It’s great, you can’t do anything for yourself!” The husband chimes in: “When you go to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only thing they don’t do is take it out for you when you have a piss!”

- British Couple in Dubai. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


It’s the Emiratis at the top, then I’d say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it’s the Filipinos, because they’ve got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you’ve got the Indians and all them lot.

-Ann Wark. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


Your family gets more compensation money if you die in a road accident than if you die on the job. But the problem is that if someone dies, their body is repatriated, and there’s no one left here to follow up and get them the compensation.

-Human Rights Watch interview with NGO volunteer (name withheld), Dubai, July 26, 2008.


If you have an accident here it’s a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they’re all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman.

- Jules Taylor, The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


Indian, Indian, what did you die for? Indian says nothing at all. - Jim Morrison, The Doors. Dawn’s Highway.


Athiraman Kannan, a 32-year-old Indian foreman, jumped to his death from the 147th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Kannan jumped after his employer denied granting him leave to go home. His death was the 26th known suicide by an Indian worker in the country in 2011.

-Local media reports, Human Rights Watch.


When these workers reach here and they realize what they have gotten themselves into and see that they’ve lost everything, they react to it. They feel trapped as they now know that they can’t go back either. There’s no escape. They know that they are in a bonded labor type of situation and are reacting to what they think is the biggest mistake in their life, an irreparable loss. It is the reaction to this loss which can lead to suicidal contemplation.

-Dr. Shiv Prakash, a psychiatrist at the New Medical Center and Hospital in Dubai. Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.


Most companies are owned by the government, so they oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit margins. It’s in their interests that the workers are slaves.

-Mohammed al-Mansoori. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


I sold land to pay for part of the agent’s fee, and had to take out a loan for the rest. The agency said I’d get a basic salary of 700 dirhams ($190) per month, but when I got here my salary was only 350 dirhams ($95)! When I first came here I was going to save money for a house, get married, have a child, but now, this isn’t really possible.

-Human Rights Watch interview with Bangladeshi worker for Al Jaber, Saadiyat Island, July 20, 2008.


I took out a loan at five per cent interest to pay the agency, and also sold my cows and took out a mortgage. The agency said we’d get a basic salary of 600 dirhams [$163], but that it would be up to 1500 dirhams a month with overtime. But we haven’t been paid yet and have been working on the island for two and a half months. We found out we’re getting 520 dirhams [$141] basic salary and only 700 dirhams [$190] with overtime.

- Human Rights Watch joint interview with three Bangladeshi workers for Leighton, Saadiyat Island, September 27, 2008.


The agency told me I’d get 1500 dirhams ($410) a month and Fridays off, but I don’t get any days off. And I get fined if my necktie isn’t tied right, or my socks are the wrong color – that’s 100 dirhams. I’ve been here for a year. When I got here, a bag of rice cost three dirhams, now it’s six. I could’ve earned more money if I’d stayed back home as a Maruti car salesman.

- Human Rights Watch interview with Group 4 Securicor guard, Saadiyat Island, July 21, 2008.


The company deducts fees from my salary for expenses that the company is supposed to cover under the law. I have to pay 900 AED ($245) to renew my visa. The company takes this out of my salary in increments. Also, every three years, 500 AED ($136) is deducted for renewal of my work permit card. The health card costs 300 AED ($82) and the company takes this from my salary every year.

-Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali, Abu Dhabi, April 3, 2006.


Private foremen, working on behalf of manpower supply companies, hire a van and drive around hiring illegal construction workers... accidents should be reported to the police, but these employers avoid doing so because they don’t want to pay for proper compensation. -Human Rights Watch interview with Indian social activist, identity withhold, February 21, 2006.


A musician sits down next to another man. The musician begins to sing. An audience gathers around him. He keeps singing and singing. Eventually everyone else leaves, but the first man stays. The musician says, “I see you appreciate my singing.” The man says, “Would you please get up, you’re sitting on my carpet.” It’s like this for us. We’re not staying here because we’re happy but because we owe money.”


During the months of July and August, when the mercury soars to unbearable limits, UAE records a spate of cases where laborers are hospitalized due to heat strokes and cramps. Heat exhaustion or heat stroke is preventable if one takes precautionary measures. The most important of which is not to expose oneself to the sun from eleven in the morning to five in the evening. -Rajeev Gupta. Anjana Sankar, “Law banning construction work in afternoons urged,� Khaleej Times, June 10, 2005.


There are certain jobs, like dewatering or road construction, that cannot be stopped in the middle of the day. They are ongoing processes. - UAECA general manager, Humaid Salem to Conrad Egbert, “Contractors lobby against noon ban,� Construction Week, May 13, 2006.


More than 60 per cent of companies inspected by labour officials were caught violating the rule banning outdoor work between 12.30pm and 4.30pm, according to ministry figures, sources said. However, a labour official said although the rule’s application would end tomorrow, the Ministry had not fined any company.

- Diaa Hadid, “60% of companies ignored noon break,” Gulf News, August 31, 2005.


For those that follow the rule, there was a boon for workers. Some labourers were seen swimming in the sea during the break.

- Diaa Hadid, “Companies devise ways to flout midday break rule,� Gulf News,


Everyone is talking about the effect of Qatar’s extreme heat on a few hundred footballers. But they are ignoring the hardships, blood and sweat of thousands of migrant workers, who will be building the World Cup stadiums in shifts that can last eight times the length of a football match.

-Umesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions. Pete Pattisson, Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’, The Guardian, 25 September 2013.


Lusail City will not tolerate breaches of labour or health and safety law. We continually instruct our contractors and their subcontractors of our expectations and their contractual obligations to both us and individual employees. The Guardian have highlighted potentially illegal activities employed by one subcontractor. We take these allegations very seriously and have referred the allegations to the appropriate authorities for investigation. Based on this investigation, we will take appropriate action against any individual or company who has found to have broken the law or contract with us.

-Press Release, Lusail Real Estate, Pete Pattisson, Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’, The Guardian, 25 September 2013.


Chekelli was working for a manpower supply company who employed him illegally. Chekelli is from Nizamuddin in Andhra Pradesh in India. He arrived in the UAE on a tourist visa and was subsequently employed by a manpower supply company. He worked at a construction site in Dubai. A large cement bucket fell on his back from a crane, pinning him to the ground. He was admitted to the Kuwaiti Hospital on January 22, 2006. His employer disappeared after dumping the injured man at the hospital. The employer claimed that he had fallen from a staircase. - Human Rights Watch interview with Indian businessman who wished to remain anonymous, Kuwaiti Hospital, Sharjah, February 21, 2006.


Two months ago I had to buy my own medication. I had a stomach problem. It cost me 70 or 80 dirhams for the medicine. I was off work for two days but my supervisor was friendly; he pretended on the paper that I’d been working; otherwise the company would’ve deducted my pay, because the doctor refused to give me sick leave. The doctor said companies told him not to be easy on allowing sick leave. Zueblin deducts two days’ pay per one unexcused day. We know that doctors won’t help us, and we can’t afford the pay deduction. Instead we get “doctors” on-site but they just give us Panadol [a generic painkiller]. -Human Rights Watch interview with Zueblin employee, Moussafa industrial area, July 25, 2008.


I was sick and called the foreman; he told me I could take the day off but that I needed a doctor’s certificate. But I didn’t go to the doctor because I’d have to pay 100 dirhams for the visit and the medicine, and two days’ salary is only 50 or 60 dirhams, which is what they’d deduct if they wanted. If I tell the supervisor I need to go to hospital, he’ll give me part time off, but he’ll only pay me for time I already worked, and there’s the danger that I’ll get fined two days’ if the doctor won’t give me a certificate. After being treated liked this, I’m only going to work until the day I pay off my loans.

-Human Rights Watch interview with Zueblin employee, Moussafa industrial area, July 25, 2008.


No natural person or body-corporate is allowed to work as an agent or supplier of non-national employees unless he has a license to do so. However, such license may be issued if necessity so requires only to nationals by order of the Minister of Labour. A license shall be valid for one year subject of renewal, and the licensee shall be under the supervision and control of the Ministry. Said Licenses may not be granted if an Employment Office pertaining to the Ministry or to an authority approved by the Ministry is already operating in the area and is able to act as intermediary to supply labour. - ARTICLE 17, U.A.E Labor Law. Federal Law No. 8 of 1980.


It is not permissible for any licensed labour agent or supplier to demand or accept from any worker whether before or after his recruitment, any commission or material reward in consideration for arranging such recruitment, nor may he obtain from him any expenses except as may be decided or approved by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. - ARTICLE 18, U.A.E Labor Law. Federal Law No. 8 of 1980.


Employees engaged on yearly or monthly remuneration shall be paid at least once a month. All other employees shall receive their remuneration at least once every two weeks. -ARTCLE 56, U.A.E Labor Law. Federal Law No. 8 of 1980.


Settlement of the remuneration payable to employees irrespective of its amount or nature shall be evidenced only in writing, by declaration or oath. Any agreement to the contrary shall be null and void even if made before the effective date of this Law. -ARTICLE 58, U.A.E Labor Law. Federal Law No. 8 of 1980.


…sometimes workers lose their passports so the safest place to keep it is at the company offices. -Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, Human Rights Watch interview. February 21, 2006.


The companies say that holding of passports is part of the business culture. They justify it by saying it would prevent the workers from stealing money or trade secrets and information from the company. Also employers say that by holding on to their workers’ passports, they can guarantee they will get a return on the money they invest on each worker in visa fees and other expenses. -Maj. Aref Mohammad Baqer, Human Rights Watch interview. Dubai, February 25, 2006.


It is not permitted for an employer to confiscate the passport of an employee and prevent him from his natural right to travel and move whatever the nature of the relationship that ties them together. Confiscating a passport from his owner is nothing but a method of the many methods that prohibit an employee from travel and this is ruled by the text of Article 329 of the civil procedure law that raises the cases in which preventing travel is permitted, and the condition that the order must be issued by a judge in accordance with the formal and practical procedures as defined by law.

- Ruling by Dubai Court of Cassation, Case # 268 (2001), October 27, 2001.


The work is the worst in the world. You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable ... This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can’t pee, not for days or weeks. It’s like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren’t allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer. -Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


Our camp is a farmhouse with five rooms. There are 23 of us living there‌. There was a period we didn’t have food to eat and some charitable people brought us food after our story was reported in the newspapers. Before that, we survived on dates from a nearby farm. -Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmoud , Dubai, February 20, 2006.


We were working on an empty stomach for 24 hours; 12 hours’ work and then no food all night. When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labour camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers. -Ram Kumar Mahara, 27. Pete Pattisson, Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’, The Guardian, 25 September 2013.


We receive diplomatic notices about our nationals who are charged and in jail only about 20 percent of the time, and this is erratic, often with up to three months’ delay.

-Embassy official from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, March 8, 2008.


There is a closet for dresses. I slept on the floor, I had a very thin blanket. -Isdiah B., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.


When the Pepsi was almost finished, the employer would accuse me of drinking it and cut my salary. Before they paid me [each month], they would have cut the whole salary. They deducted my salary if a fork was lost or if the iron was not hot. They accused me of breaking it‌. My employer never paid me for 10 months. -Human Rights Watch interview with Wati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.


She always said bad things, like “you’re a dog, you’re poor, you’re only a servant here.” I said, “Yes, I’m a servant.” She was angry everyday. She was jealous of me. She told me, “Don’t talk to your Baba, if you do, I will kill you.” I said I treated him like my father. She said, “Don’t say that, you’re not a baby….” I heard all bad things from her, she told me, “You’re crazy, you’re garbage.” I was hurt. I said, “I’m human.” She said, “No, you are not human, you are an animal.” -Adelina Y., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.


I was ironing some clothes and the lady [employer] wanted me to make tea for her. I told her I am ironing, let me finish and switch off the iron because there are children and I was afraid they would pull the iron‌. She got angry, came and took the iron and put the hot iron on my hand. -Sithy M., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.


I am an employer of a maid, driver, and a cook. I do not let my maid out. I will take her out with my family. But if she goes out alone, she may go with a foreign man, and get pregnant. No one can accept this. -Human Rights Watch interview with a Saudi employer, Riyadh, March 8, 2008.


I did not have any chance to leave because everything was locked up. When Baba and Mama were out they locked the doors to the outside. I did not run away because I did not have a chance, because there is no house nearby. -Human Rights Watch interview with Chemmani R., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.


If I were a bird, I would fly away. But I have no wings. They never let me leave the house. - Kamala Rai, TIME MAGAZINE, Asia Edition, July 20th, 1998.


For four months I did not get my salary. I don’t have money for a return ticket to Sri Lanka. I have no money. Not only me, but many people don’t have money. Now I have been here for one month. One person worked in Saudi Arabia for four years with no money, she has been in the Olaya camp [MOSA center] for six months. -Mary J., Sri Lankan domestic worker, MOSA center, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.


A senior officer came. I complained about the marks. I complained that Baba had beaten me up. Baba claimed that he was not there at the time. Then they asked if Baba paid me. I said, “For one-and-a-half years I have not been paid.” I refused to go back to Baba. I insisted to go to the embassy house…. The police told Baba to drop me at the embassy, but he took me back to the house…. The lady beat me really badly. She told me, “Anywhere you go in Saudi Arabia, they’ll return you back here. Even if we kill you, the police won’t say anything to us. If you hadn’t run, we would have killed you and thrown you in the trash.” -Human Rights Watch interview with Ponnamma S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.


I keep the passport of my domestic worker, she is like a member of the family. -Human Rights Watch group interview with recruitment agents, National Committee of Saudi Recruitment Agencies, Saudi Chamber of Commerce, Riyadh, December 12, 2006.


Baba kept saying that he paid my salary. The embassy people told the police, “If you claim she has been paid her salary, then she should have been paid in front of us.” They kept on insisting they paid my salary, they said I was lying. Now I have given up and I told the embassy people, “Put me in another house so that I can earn money for a ticket.” Sir tried, but can’t because Baba has given a written statement that I can’t work in another house. -Human Rights Watch interview with Latha P., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.


The [employer’s adult son] asked for his mobile, all of a sudden he hugged me. I beat him with the iron, he threw the iron and grabbed my arm and dragged me to a separate room. My arm hit the wall, my arm had a bruise. He pushed me to the floor and removed all of my clothes. He raped me. I felt lifeless, I couldn’t get up, I felt so weak…. I reported to Mama, “I can’t work here anymore, please send me home.” Mama said, “You can’t leave halfway, finish your two years. Even if you are pregnant, I’ll take care of you.” They put me in my room and locked me there for four days. For four days I was locked in from the outside, I didn’t work. There was no way to get out, so I had to lie to them, I said, “I’ll work for you,” and then they allowed me out. -Human Rights Watch interview with Chamali W., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.


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. -Mela Matari, 25 year old Ethiopian, run-away house-maid, The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


It’s absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she’s paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month. - American expat. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.


We’d like to leave now, but the company said it would cost us a 2000 dirham fine ($540). If we had left the UAE within two months, the company says we could’ve avoided the fine, because we were still on a temporary permit, but now we have to pay the fine because they say they’ve done all the work to get the real work permit. The company has all our passports. We can’t afford to leave. I went to a manager here and complained, and she said if you don’t like it here, you can go home. -Human Rights Watch interview with four Nepalese workers for Abu Dhabi National Hotels Compass, Saadiyat Island, November 18, 2008.


I paid 100,000 Indian rupees ($2,200) to an agency in India to get a visa to come here and work. We can’t just go back. Each of us owes a lot of money to recruiting agents back home. How can we go back when we have taken such huge loans? -Human Rights Watch interview with Nataranjan, Dubai, February 19, 2006.


This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realized – everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers’ contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake! I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand.

-Filipino attendant at a Pizza Hut store. The Dark Side of Dubai, Johann Hari, The Independent, April 7, 2009.



Crossings