Posted by: Lister | October 9, 2008

The New Pharaohs

The Guardian has an article by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, called ‘We need slaves to build monuments’:

The sun is setting and its dying rays cast triangles of light on to the bodies of the Indian workers. Two are washing themselves, scooping water from tubs in a small yard next to the labour camp’s toilets. Others queue for their turn. One man stands stamping his feet in a bucket, turned into a human washing machine. The heat is suffocating and the sandy wind whips our faces. The sprinkles of water from men drying their clothes fall like welcome summer rain.

All around, a city of labour camps stretches out in the middle of the Arabian desert, a jumble of low, concrete barracks, corrugated iron, chicken-mesh walls, barbed wire, scrap metal, empty paint cans, rusted machinery and thousands of men with tired and gloomy faces.

[…] Hamidullah, a thin Afghan from Maydan, a village on the outskirts of Kabul, tells me: “I spent five years in Iran and one year here, and one year here feels like 10 years. When I left Afghanistan I thought I would be back in a few months, but now I don’t know when I will be back.” Another worker on a bunk bed next to him adds: “He called his home yesterday and they told him that three people from his village were killed in fighting. This is why we are here.”

Hamidullah earns around 450 dirhams (A70) a month as a construction worker.

How is life, I ask.

“What life? We have no life here. We are prisoners. We wake up at five, arrive to work at seven and are back at the camp at nine in the evening, day in and day out.”

[…] All of these men are part of a huge scam that is helping the construction boom in the Gulf. Like hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, they each paid more than A1,000 to employment agents in India and Pakistan. They were promised double the wages they are actually getting, plus plane tickets to visit their families once a year, but none of the men in the room had actually read their contract. Only two of them knew how to read.

“They lied to us,” a worker with a long beard says. “They told us lies to bring us here. Some of us sold their land; others took big loans to come and work here.”

Once they arrive in the United Arab Emirates, migrant workers are treated little better than cattle, with no access to healthcare and many other basic rights. The company that sponsors them holds on to their passports – and often a month or two of their wages to make sure that they keep working. And for this some will earn just 400 dirhams (A62) a month.

[…] One experienced worker with spectacles and a prayer cap on his head tells me that things are much better than they used to be. Five years ago, when he first came, the company gave him nothing. There was no air conditioning in the room and sometimes no electricity. “Now, they give AC to each room and a mattress for each worker.”

[…] One evening in Abu Dhabi, I have dinner with my friend Ali, a charming Iraqi engineer whom I have known for two decades. After the meal, as his wife serves saffron-flavoured tea, he pushes back his chair and lights a cigar. We talk about stock markets, investment and the Middle East, and then the issue of race comes up.

“We will never use the new metro if it’s not segregated,” he tells me, referring to the state-of-the-art underground system being built in neighbouring Dubai. “We will never sit next to Indians and Pakistanis with their smell,” his wife explains.

Not for the first time, I am told that while the immigrant workers are living in appalling conditions, they would be even worse off back home – as if poverty in one place can justify exploitation in the other.

“We need slaves,” my friend says. “We need slaves to build monuments. Look who built the pyramids – they were slaves.”

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Responses

  1. This is so sad.. impressive writing.. deeply touched


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