Meet Sudahkar, a 24-year old construction worker. To escape poverty in his native Sri Lanka and to help support his family of younger siblings and elderly parents, Sudahkar is willing to take a risk. When he hears about the building boom in Dubai, Sudahkar sees an opportunity to earn money. He takes out a loan for US$ 2,500 and pays the money to a local recruitment agency. In return, the office will provide him with a well-paying employment contract, housing, transportation to Dubai, a passport and a working visa. Sudahkar signs the contract even though he is illiterate and doesn’t know what the contract says. The $2,500 are a huge risk for him but Sudahkar has been re-assured, that he will be able to start re-paying his loan almost immediately. Upon arrival in Dubai, his passport is confiscated and he is driven to the gated and guarded workers’ camp 1 hour outside town. The camp is abysmal: 7,500 labourers are cramped into 1,248 rooms with poor ventilation. The toilets are overflowing. He has to share his room with 7 other workers. The ground outside his room is flooded with sewage, so he and his colleagues are finding large stones to walk on. At work, Sudahkar soon learns the grim reality of his situation. He will work 12 hours per day, 6 days per week. He will not receive a paycheque during the first two months of his employment, putting him in arrears with his lender at home already. He will earn $175 per month, far less than promised (avg. salary in Dubai US$ 2,106/mth). He will be indentured to his employer for two years and will not be allowed to leave Dubai. He will have to work under very dangerous conditions and is not allowed to complain. He will not be allowed to strike and engage in collective bargaining with his fellow workers as it is against UAE law. One day, at the end of his work shift, the buses that transport the labourers back to their accommodations, are late. In frustration, he and his fellow workers lose their temper. They destroy cars, smash windows, wreck construction equipment and battle with police. When the dust settles, US$ 800,000 of damage has been done and the workers are threatened with deportation, an option that is no option to men who are over their heads in debt. That evening he calls home. He knows he has to pretend that everything is fine. He does not want his family to worry. But things are far from fine.
The above is the fate of thousands of construction workers in the UAE. While laws are in place to protect workers from unfair treatment and exploitation, violations of those laws are the norm and go unpunished. Human Rights Watch was unable to find evidence of even one delinquent employer receiving a prison sentence or a fine.
As I sort my photos on my computer and look at the Burj Khalifa again and again, I am amazed how the tower, the opulence of the furnishings, the view of Dubai from above and the quality of workmanship inside the building are beyond anything I have ever seen. It is as if I had walked into a fairy tale. UAE officials claim that only 1 worker lost his life during the construction of the tower. However, everyone agrees that lies, payoffs and cover ups will succeed in keeping the truth from being reported. We will never know how many families in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh mourn the loss of a son, a father or a husband.