You may be picking up my theme in this blog is that ‘nothing in life is free’. We should either be prepared to pay the premium for ethical sourcing or live with the fact that the people who make our household products often do so under appalling conditions.
Today I’d like to look at something a little more abstract: travel. It is a big ticket item in household discretionary spending, even if it doesn’t result in anything tangible beyond a snow dome or keychain.
Of course travel destinations are generally, you might say, “pre-existing”. They were built for a purpose unrelated to tourism, even if tourism later becomes the tail that wags the dog, e.g. the Tower of London, Macchu Pichu, China’s Great Wall.
However the 21st Century economy sees lack of significance as no barrier and building projects are devised to generate tourism where none existed. Disneyland and Las Vegas did this so successfully; everyone wants a piece of the action.
The Emirate of Dubai decided if it was good enough for Nevada, it was good enough for them. They also wanted to turn their city into the Singapore of the Middle-East, finance-wise. They might still pull it off; 6.8 million visitors a year can’t be wrong, can they?
Hopefully a few of them pause between coladas to ask, Who built those glitzy towers and resorts?
The UAE has a bizarre labour force. The 20% of the population who hold Emirati passports generally live a generous tax free existence and many do not have to work at all. There are a small number of mostly white expatriates. A colossal 90% of the workforce are migrant workers, mostly from India and Pakistan.
The people who build the shimmering towers themselves live in makeshift labour camps beyond the city limits, sleeping eight to a room in filthy living conditions. Just this week it was reported that there have been two suicides in one of these camps.
The workers have very limited rights, a fact compounded by their tenuous citizenship. Traditionally workers have used strike and protest to advance their conditions. However when 4,000 migrant Dubai workers tried that in 2007, they were all deported.
More recently workers have also found themselves stranded when their employer goes belly-up, as they need the employer’s sponsorship to remain in the country.
Home governments have not been very energetic in pushing for improvements to the situation because they are quite happy to be receiving a small portion of the Emirates’ wealth sent back to workers’ family members in the form of remittances.
The UAE government has taken some measures to improve the situation, stipulating minimum conditions for work contracts and announcing in 2007 that it would allow the formation of construction unions (although, to date, none have appeared).
But when your friend shows you the photos of the glass city in the desert, remember that it didn’t just materialise, mirage-like, it was built by thousands upon thousands of workers who are deliberately being kept out of the frame.
- Two suicides, Khaleej Times, 11 March 2011, via migrant-rights.org
- Labor Protests Become More Common in Recession-Hit Dubai, The Epoch Times, 27 January 2011