It was recently announced that beginning next year on May1, workers in the United Arab Emirates will be honored liketheir colleagues elsewhere in the world. For until now, theUAE has not recognized Labor Day and it is ironic that acountry so dependent on labor, particularly migrant labor,has never taken the time to thank those whose sweat and hardwork made this tiny patch of sand the economic success it istoday.
On May 1 this year, the UAE Minister of Labor Dr. Ali BinAbdullah Al Ka’abi, no doubt as a prelude to next year’svolte face, made a rare gesture of appreciation,congratulating “all those workers who through dedication andefforts contribute to the economic boom and growth of thiscountry … we aim to provide continuous support for theworkforce in the country by protecting their rights.”
Some would say, “It was about time!” However, let’s nothold our breath. In March 2006, the same ministry announcedthat it was creating a new law permitting the forming oflabor unions by the year’s end. Nothing has so far happened.
All this sudden talk of workers’ rights did not happenovernight by some magnificent epiphany experience by themonarchy. It has taken years of pressure by NGOs, the mostvocal of which has been Mafiwasta (www.mafiwasta.com), whichwants the UAE to sign and adopt the International LaborOrganization’s two core conventions: 87 and 98 “on freedomof association and collective bargaining” respectively,which allow workers to form trade unions and negotiatebetter terms of employment and working conditions.
Despite isolated incidents of industrial action, mainly byconstruction workers, little if anything has been done toadvance the cause of workers in the Emirates, wheretraditionally it has been the investor that the governmenthas pandered to. It has been far worse for domestic staff,many of whom have been physically abused, forced to workwithout pay and have had their identity documentsconfiscated.
And still migrant labor makes up 95% of the UAE work force,with most coming from poor developing countries across Asiaand Africa, and most recently, China to work on the hugeChinese projects. It was only a matter of time beforesomeone said “enough.” In March 2007, 200 workers werebanned from working in the UAE for life after theydemonstrated for better work conditions. The ruling washarsher than normal because the demonstrators were accusedof violence and destroying company property. The workers inquestion received monthly salaries of between $150 to $177,for which they worked upwards of 250 hours and lived incrowded and squalid conditions.
Yes, the shroud that always hid what was not supposed to beseen is being gradually lifted. Twenty years ago, when I wasbased Dubai primarily covering what was known as the “Tankerwar,” one of the conditions that I and other foreignjournalists had to live under was that we were not allowedto report on the royal family and labor unrest. Thenewspapers and television could not even use a Dubaidateline when reporting and instead had to use the vague“Persian Gulf.”
At that time, the UAE was beginning to plan its future anddidn’t need any bad publicity. If you wanted to reportsomething negative, you had to feed the information toanother bureau in another country. Even filming a yachtowned by the royal family from a helicopter (as I found tomy cost when it was grounded by a stern faced official)would lead to trouble with the authorities.
With all the attention paid to the various groundbreakingmarvels that have risen out of this desert and, morerecently, the move by many multinational corporations likeHalliburton to Dubai, it’s no surprise that with all thesuccess there is bound to be more awareness about thesuffering of those who build this magnificent emirate. Ifthe UAE truly wants the world to sit up and take note, it isimportant that government also address the welfare of itsworkers. Happily, it appears that things might be beginningto change.
Norbert Schiller is a photo editor and photographerat large with United Press International (UPI).