Dubai: Look beyond the glitter to see the sorrow of migrant workers

Published: August 23, 2013

Behind the spanking new skyscrapers lies the sad truth for immigrant workers. Dubai's labour laws are unkind. PHOTO: REUTERS

Dubai has undergone a massive transformation, from a fishing and pearl diving centre on the shores of the gulf, to an ultra-modern city-state of today in a matter of just a few decades.

Modern Dubai is a cosmopolitan society with a wide range of attractions. Its architecture is entering the realms of impossible construction and the sort of life of great opulence and grandeur it offers seems almost unrivaled.

Dubai wished to undertake extremely interesting and intriguing projects in the past couple of years: Dubai Land – a vast landscape of leisure; Hydropolis – an underwater hotel; The Cloud – a city built on stilts, and many others.

All these and similar projects along with many other advancements (for example, the relatively greater amount of freedom enjoyed by homosexuals in this part of the Arab world) give the place an aura of rapid development and ultra-modernisation. However, what is lost in all this appreciation and admiration is the gloomy part of Dubai. This place which lacks any originality and seems almost plastic and fake is not without its flaws.

One can argue that problems exist in any and every state, but what is interesting about Dubai is that not only are its problems concealed, they are camouflaged under its apparent wonder and superficial transformation.

Moreover, everything in Dubai is out on tables for sale. Each thing, whether it is cultural, social, political or economic, is yelling out to be sold, and hence the broken and anglicised syllables of the name “do-buy” make perfect sense to me.

The entire modernisation hype with the new buildings, whether they are to be built or have already been constructed, for example, Burj Khalifa or Burj al Arab, is highly exaggerated. This is because the desert boom, the emergence and subsequent flourishing of the tourism industry, the spanking new, tall buildings, all come at a huge human cost which is never recognised.

Millions of migrant workers enter Dubai and are unable to leave the country since their passports are usurped by construction companies and they are paid half the amount of wages they are promised before the contract.

Furthermore, their living conditions are extremely deplorable. Workers are deprived of even basic sanitation facilities and live in tiny, dingy apartments with at least a dozen other people.

Apparently, Dubai plans to construct Taj Arabia – an Arab version of the Taj Mahal. What took Shah Jehan 22 years to build, Dubai wants to build in two years to serve as the world’s grandest wedding destination. The idea may be unique and even thoroughly fascinating but highlights once again, the lack of originality in the culture of Dubai and emphasises its “do-buy” nature – its desperation to sell itself and get more people to buy the facilities it offers.

While it may be willing to sell a great deal and lure people to its magical land with all the other great magnificent features, the facade of an adult Disneyland in Dubai is now collapsing. People come, live in amazing big apartments, pay no taxes and live a wonderful life. However, very soon, the covert debt they had been taking, piles up and the ‘do-buy’ drug stops lulling them into a deep sleep.

Very often, people quit their jobs to repay the amount but get less money from what is stated on their contracts. Their accounts get frozen and they are prohibited from leaving the country. The subsequent court hearings are in Arabic without any translation which exacerbates the misery of migrant workers.

Under the wonderful aspects of Dubai, lies a cruel and crushing world which is not necessarily benevolent and definitely not “modernised”. The aspects of modernisation, as I understand the term, are seriously absent — evidence would include the lack of a fair judicial system for foreigners, the absolute dearth of any attempts at alleviating the ill treatment meted out to migrant workers and the persistent violation of job contracts.

People are tempted to explore the opportunities but this process is done at an enormous cost to the buyers of “do-buy”!

Yusra Hayat

Yusra Hayat

The author has a Bachelor’s in English Literature from LUMS. She is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune Peshawar desk. She tweets at @hayat55y (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • thetruth

    how dare you say anything negative about your overlords.

    “Dubai is great nation of muslim ummah” Recommend

  • Reader

    Although the problem in the title is genuine and there is indeed alot of sorrow under carpet, the arguments in the article does not reflect true picture.

    Sheikhs have build Dubai for their own financial gains and survival not for us. It is indeed remarkable the security the provide to all which is unthinkable for us and to an extend everybody enjoys a certain level of freedom. It is duty of us (countries exporting manpower to Dubai and GCC) to provide jobs to these guys so that they don’t have to go to Dubai and similar places to work. Or the government of their home countries should protect their rights like Philippines.Recommend

  • MA

    Dubai is an autocracy built on slave labour. All the money, sports cars, tallest buildings, reclaimed islands, and designer goods in the world couldn’t bring Dubai out of the Dark Ages.Recommend

  • Rational Liberal

    Let me guess, you’re an Indian troll trying to drag Islam into every issueRecommend

  • Adeel Ur Rehman

    I work in Dubai right now and you paint a bit extra gloomy picture. These migrant workers that you talk about sign the contracts that contains their salaries so no one is fooled unless a fool signs on a blank stamp paper. Plus no one can legally make you work for him for more than 2 years and that too for people earning less than 5k a month. So you are free to leave them for better opportunities and they do arise. I know people who have started at AED 200 and are multimillionaires now. So the only thing stopping anyone from growing in a growing cosmopolitan is themself.Recommend

  • Dubai Resident

    First of all Dubai and Gulf as a general is the biggest labor market for south asia as far as construction industry is concerned.
    Has the author asked any single laborer if he wants to leave Dubai due to his poor living conditions? I am living in Dubai for the last 14 years and working in construction industry. Not a single labor want to leave Dubai for the reasons mentioned by author. Recently 40 labor were seriously injured in an accident but they refused to go to their homelands.
    During last 4-5 years the condition of labor accommodation, visa rules has improved a lot in Dubai. Also please note that people are deceived by their own countrymen and agencies for fake contracts or salaries and Dubai companies are not involved in this.
    Having said that there is big responsibility on concerned embassies and consulates to educate their nationals for their rights and help them.Recommend

  • Karachiites

    These are just a fraction of problems people face in dubai and will continue to face as these people are babaric and unkindRecommend

  • Sonya

    It is not worth working for a corporation like tiny country who funds terrorism in my beloved Pakistan.Recommend

  • bleh

    the article is very abrupt. you spend a good time explaining Dubai, briefly touch the topic that u intended to discuss and close with something even more abrupt.

    the article is nothing like the title: ‘Dubai: Look beyond the glitter to see the sorrow of migrant worker’
    you do not enumerate what a migrant worker has to go through other then a few measly lines. there are no cases that have been quoted, no trials and hardships explored nor is there a detailed explanation of anything worthwhile other then the commercial nature of Dubai. All you have done is lamented on how much of a prostitute Dubai may seem.Recommend

  • zahid

    Good one.Recommend

  • Faiqa Fahd Khan

    The problem highlighted is true but exaggerated a lot. The labor u r calling slaves comes from those countries where they r deprived of almost everything… The countries working effectively with their lAbor laws n foreign office gaining a lot in this part of the world for eg Philipines and India. Bangladesh is also far better than Pakistan in this regard. The judicial laws are not worst than our. They are really strict in drug issues which unfortunately many try to smuggle from underdeveloped countries like our. Still they follow a mercy custom in Ramadan and both Eids many culprits are send to their lands without a penny to pay. I agree with living conditions but its also on a very low scale. The biggest labor camp is in Sonapur near lulu village ! Go n visit … Its far better den the places these plp use to live in there countries… Their is no electricity or water problem. All the appartments hv ACs.. They hv a full community to be freinds with chat n roamout. In the end they r sending good money. Yes the passports remains with there boses in whole middleeast just to control frauds which v have seen a lot in past years! The crime rate is very low due to the effective police system we live in absolute peace of mind. No bombings n Target killing.. So its nothing against a few issue as no nation is perfect. Dubai is proud of Sheikh Makhtoum n they should b as he s definitly a leader to look upto. Atleast he s loyal to his own people.Recommend

  • Aloo parantha

    @ Rational liberal

    Troll,as in,fairytale creature ?Recommend

  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan

    UAE is a friend of india so I will go a bit easy on them. I was in Dubai terminal 1 and I was presumed to be a Muslim since I wear a turban so I was reciprocrating the immigration people passengers with wailakum salam.The colour of the skin did not come in the picture, the immigration official saw my Indian passport and smiled and I left the airport peacefully. My advise is stay low and talk as and when required, conduct your stuff and leave with a smile. The Arab lady was happy to serve me at the Costa coffee bar and I gave her a tip too. “When in Rome do as the Roman do”. A poor image takes a long time to heal like in a case of green passport versus ours. At least, we have some sensible Arabs appreciating us indians.anyways, have a nice evening paaji’s and paanji’s. Rab rab rakhaRecommend

  • Palm Jumeirah Resident

    Truly speaking, being a resident of Dubai for many years, i would say this is a secular city where all nationalities ( more than 180) belonging to every religion and culture live very harmoniously. Apart from sexual gestures or drinking alcohol in public there is all freedom to enjoy life in the most modern city. Dubai is one of safest city in the world for women to work and exceed in all spheres. Recommend

  • Kamran Choudhry

    I think the author has touched a very sensitive nerve, particularly at a time when we Pakistanis are considering ourselves more Arab. The undeniable fact is Dubai is being built with blood, sweat and tear of South Asian workers. Yes, those workers are earning a living that will be difficult in their own countries. But that does not release the builders of Dubai who claim to be devout Muslims from the moral obligation of looking after the welfare of workers who are predominately Muslims. The queer fact is the non-South Asian expats from USA and Europe are well taken care of and their all kinds of vices are being tolerated by the rulers of UAE. Is it a case of racism or taking undue advantage of vulnerable poor South Asians, be they be Pakistanis, Indians, Philppina or Thais?Recommend

  • Xam

    I absolutely love you for raising this issue. Wonderful. These poor men need a voice!Recommend

  • C. Nandkishore

    People who go to Middle east should remember one fundamental thing: They are going there to earn and return back to their own country. You are not a citizen of that country. Either you stay their and accept their laws or go back to your country. Recommend

  • Silas

    @Rational Liberal:
    No. He is just trying to say that the Arabs control us through our money and export their version of islam to our lands. Just because you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean he is an indian troll. Rationally liberal my foot.Recommend

  • Parvez

    This type of stuff has been written about Dubai for years now………but it survives or rather seems to grow. So in a sense Dubai is a success story and in the life of an emerging important global city, a few decades and a few up-and-downs do not really matter.

  • Fraz

    I’m sorry to say but the article is a typically pakistani one… full of negativities and envy of another countries success. I’m an overseas Pakistani, and this type of rant is not uncommon from my brethren. I do understand this mindset, tortured with decades of failures at home, the people look for failures in all those who seem better off… Dubai is fake, america is not a democracy, india will soon break because of it caste system… and so on and so on. The truth is this, UAE, a federation of 7 kingdoms with their own laws, and together they form the most successful arab state, and one of the most successful muslim states along with Turkey and Malaysia. While you rant about it abusing its working class, you ignore the actual slavery of millions in your own country, which many are trying to escape by finding opportunity here. millions have no shelter, no access to water, no health care, no justice, no future… all of which they find here, which is why they still continue to come. In 2007, before the credit crisis the UAE population was 4.5 million, today in 2013 it stands closer to 8 million… why? Because money does not lie… if you were to ask any pakistani where they would invest their money… would they say pakistan?… if you were to ask any pakistani where they would invest to send their children to study… how many would say pakistan?.. why is this? because not matter what your circumstance, no matter what your religion, no matter your ideology…. when it comes to money, nobody is willing to throw it away on emotion or BS… they will always invest it in a place where it will have a chance to grow. This is Dubai. It offers opportunity, it offers a future… simple. You talk about dubais problems are camouflaged, to whom? you say workers are paid only half their salary, you are obviously unaware of the WPS (wage protection system) now mandatory with all visas. If salaries are not deposited as per contract every month on time, the employers is barred new visas and license renewals until dues are cleared. You say millions (really, there are only 8 million people here!… ) cannot leave the country, yet there is an amnesty every year for anyone with such a predicament. You say living conditions are deplorable without knowing the new laws and fines on landlords for allowing so many people to be in a single room. No place is perfect, and it will always be the brightest lights that cast the deepest shadows, but please before ranting about other places, please compare it to places in your home country. For every problem you listed in your article, can you compare it to what would happen to the same people if they were in your country of residence? I have a lot of love for Pakistan, and my heart breaks at its continued downward spiral. But the reality is that out of 180 million people, 179 million would jump at the chance to live in a place like Dubai in order to provide their family a better future. Don’t believe me?, just do a litmus test… ask any random pakistani (or any other global citizen for that matter) a choice between a work visa to UAE and work visa to Pakistan… which one do you think they will pick?Recommend

  • Travel_Tart

    Not just Dubai…
    The whole world thrives by exploiting less fortunates!Recommend

  • Zach in Dubai

    After living as an expat in Dubai, I applaud your willingness to be bring to light this issue of sorrow among migrant workers. The challenges you present are definitely apparent and real, especially after spending many hours conversing with several migrant workers (some of which have become dear friends) in the best broken English conversations we can have. One additional light I would like to shed on this issue is the fact that most of the working conditions are brought on because of corrupt employers who start their work outside Dubai and even outside of the UAE. Many of these migrant workers are coerced into coming to Dubai and sign up to work in their home countries with their future employers often of the same nationality. I try my best to be a voice and make a difference and show consistency in the lives of as many as I can, but the problem proves to be much more complex. Many migrant workers are educated and intelligent and applaud the opportunities they have in the UAE to make a life better for themselves one day in their home countries, and many migrant workers have claimed in conversations I have had they have a decent life here in the UAE. So I think it is important to know, the issue and sorrow of migrant workers in large part happens because of what is done in their home countries before any one migrant worker sets foot into the city of Dubai. While of course things could be better and more modernized in the current judicial system in place, Dubai has taken many steps to pardon cases and open up visas for those who are currently trapped or misplaced. The bigger blame needs to be placed, not necessarily on Dubai itself, but on what happens in the home countries of the migrants workers who are manipulated by employers most often of their own nationalities. Recommend

  • thetruth

    @rational liberal.

    Im actually a Pakistani. And im talking 100% common sense. Not trolling.

    I know im right, you know im right, and you cant accept any criticism of your overlords.

    “All women must wear a niqab”, remove our own culture as its “anti-islam”..when in reality its just arab customs being forced on us..i could go on with the cold, hard, distasteful facts…Recommend

  • Water Bottle

    “Apparently, Dubai plans to construct Taj Arabia – an Arab version of the Taj Mahal. What took Shah Jehan 22 years to build, Dubai wants to build in two years to serve as the world’s grandest wedding destination.”

    Those who say Muslims ruled India should take a look at Dubai to understand how they ruled.

    Wasting money in unnecessary things that add little to no value to hunamity.
    Breaking the backs of millions of poor muslims so a few thousand rich rulers can lavishly burn away the money.

    Today, because of the Tv and the internet, some of the things are exposed. back in the day of your great muslim rulers, there was none. Today, you accuse the Dubai/Saudi royal family of being debauchees. So, just imagine what kind of rulers you had in the subcontinent back in the day.Recommend

  • Fiz

    I agree with you. Arab culture is being forced on us. No matter what we do, these arabs will never accept us. I have lived among them and they consider us as “ajmi” and inferior to themselves, religion wise or otherwise. I fear that “kavva hans ki chaal chal kay apni chaal na bhool jaaiy”Recommend

  • http://India Feroz

    The spit and polish glamour of Dubai seems like a mirage. Dubai has progressed because it is a famous money laundering destination and home to every shady business. Sanctions on Iran have been a boon for this country which is a known transshipment point. It is a famous watering hole for Drug Lords of South Asia who easily convert their funds into legitimate businesses. When Oil runs out in another fifty years the entire Middle East will become a black hole, with very few living and no one visiting.Recommend

  • thetruth

    @ fraz, lol, spoken like a true self hating pakistani.

    “when it comes to money, nobody is willing to throw it away on emotion or BS… they will always invest it in a place where it will have a chance to grow. This is Dubai.”

    ha ha ha ha ha

    Is it? Really? Pakistan had one of the best performing stock markets in the world during 2012 (almost 50% in a year!) And unlike dubai (in spite of the things you listed) some actual substance to it….regardless of all of its problems.

    The truth is, everyone knows Dubai is where you go to launder money, ask the

    The property bubble is over, they still have debtors prisons and you can go to jail for bouncing a check… :-)

    Lets look at Dubai in comparison to that which it ought to be compared to, (and not compare it to pakistan, PK is a VERY easy target.)

    Lets compare it to…say, Singapore. And we soon find out which is essentially a “sand-castle”, which can be swept away very quickly by an incoming tide (re, 2009). And which is more robust.

    One, which has a multi-ethnic citizenry, and one which is doesnt.

    Anyway, you keep going, more of our people can build the white elephants the modern day pharaohs want to build. And you keep cheering them onRecommend

  • Munna Bhai

    @Feroz: For your kind information Dubai has no oil. Dubai has already developed its infra structure ( including tourism) to survive without oil. And yes if people want to invest money (black or white) Dubai has no issues because they are intelligent ( unlike Iran), rather the governments of countries should be worried from where this money is coming from. I feel you are just jealous of Dubai being the most modern city and tourist place where 182 nationalities are living peacefully. I am a middle class pakistani and I drive latest BMW and I have travelled half the world and saved enough money to build a house and much more. I could only dream all this living in my home country. I am proud of living in Dubai.Recommend

  • Pappu

    “Anyway, you keep going, more of our people can build the white elephants the modern day pharaohs want to build. And you keep cheering them on”

    Your untruthfulness is bewildering. The monuments built by Egyptian Pharaoh’s are standing like grandeur (wonders) providing livelihood to Egyptians to this date. Tourism is the biggest income generation industry for Egypt. Egyptians are thankful to Pharaoh”s unlike you.Recommend

  • Asad Umar

    @Adeel Ur Rehman
    Migrants workers have to have whole family which depend on their incomes parents, wife, children, and even other siblings. They are in a trap, they have to bow down and take the insults. Recommend

  • therapist

    @thetruth: i sense sarcasm hereRecommend

  • Aamer

    This is a very poorly researched article. Having lived in Dubai for more than 6 years I can tell that the author hasn’t spent any considerable time in this amazing city. I have NEVER heard of anyone getting paid less than what is in their contract. This places offers tremendous economic opportunity to people of all nationalities. I wish more parts of the world could be like Dubai. I believe Sheikh Mohammad is a truly visionary leader who dreamed big and then brought it to life. People like the author of this blog would need to overcome their petty jealousies to really appreciate what a great miracle Dubai really is.Recommend

  • King
  • vaticancity

    This world is not perfect, we all know that. Give Dubai some break at least, they are doing the best they can considering their geographical location and multiple foreign elements that try to pressurize the small country. All those workers go there by choice. In life it is always easy to be negative and think the worst of others. Okay agree with some points but the good far outweighs the bad in Dubai. It gives people the chance. Also if you don’t have certain logical controls then there would be chaos. Recommend

  • thetruth

    @ pappu.

    Ok, not modern day pharaohs, a better term would be dollar store pharaohs or plastic pharaohs :-) You really think that indoor ski slope will be there in 2000+ years..hahahaRecommend

  • Amina

    I dont think the author understands that Dubai offers many more opportunities than are available in Pakistan. The problem here isn’t that workers from Pakistan suffer under inhumane conditions in Dubai, the problem is that they are desperate enough for any opportunity, opprotunities that are unavailable in Paksitan, that they are willing to bear the hardships.Recommend

  • Nb

    @ thetruth

    Rather harsh to call Fraz a ‘self hating pakistani’… The content of his remark made sense.Recommend

  • anon

    UAE/SA are super rich countries and should offer better salaries and protection to poor laborers from Pakistan/India/Bangladesh. Comparing what they pay to workers with what the said worker would be earning in PK is mis-leading. Their salary and rights should be compared with workers in other developed world and that should answer what our MASTERS think of us.Recommend

  • http://- AA

    I moved to Dubai in 2011 and while this topic has been exhausted to death, I think the author hasn’t really given us an angle that is new. Everyman has the ability to change his or her own destiny. Having said that, there are organizations who HELP labourers on a yearly basis ESPECIALLY during Ramadan. I live on the JBR/Marina strip where the labourers are banging away on the tram and my neighbours and I ensure we provide them with tea, sometimes sandwiches and a nice meal box when and as we can. Wake up and smell the coffee dear, the whole WORLD runs this way unfortunately. Recommend

  • Fraz

    not sure what your understanding of the word “self hating” is, its certainly not relevant to what i have written, i don’t believe that i hate myself, or my ethnicity, or my country of origin. Coming back to the topic, while the pakistani stock exchange has certainly risen dramatically, if you look at the actual volume of monies traded and then compare it to Dubai (which is not a country, but the equivalent of a province) you will be embarrassed by what you see. And while comparing to singapore and hong kong is certainly a correct equivalent, you will see that Dubai (and UAE as a whole) is catching up fast to both of them, who have had at least a 100 years head start

    But the topic of the article was to do with the plight of residents in UAE. i am sorry, but Pakistanis really do need to focus on the plight of our own countrymen and women before pointing to anyone else. No one was forced to come to UAE, all have far more rights and safety in UAE than they do in the country of origin, thats why they are still here and continue to come. Pakistan unfortunately continues to self destruct. I am watching the pakistani news networks and am seeing calls for the army to be called in to its biggest city, and plight of citizens who have lost everything due to the floods. This is what pakistani expats are running from when they come to places like Dubai

    The simple truth remains, Dubai offers a better life to majority of pakistani expats than what they would have at home. Please focus on our country, stop being envious of others, and sort the buffet of problems that sadly either our pakistani brethren have created for themselves, or have allowed to be created by others. if you cant sort them out yourself, at least start a meaningful dialogue to get things moving in the right direction. Writing silly envious articles will do nothing to improve Pakistanis plight, and writing abusive comments will only turn away those who want to

    As far as Dubais property prices are concerned, they have started rising again as of last year. Several new laws to prevent another bubble from arising have already been implemented. Dubai has been paying back its dues (which were a fraction of Greece’s debt), and creditors have started to lend to Dubai again. The country’s infrastructure continues to be heavily invested in. Jebel Ali, already the largest man-made port is well on its way to being doubled in size, Abu Dhabi continues to invest in industrial projects and building national infrastructure like the GCC wide railway.

    The UAE is not going under (barring any region wide wars), in fact its very much on the right track and hopefully shall continue to do so. The muslim world does not have many role models, but Turkey, UAE, and Malaysia continue to offer the rest of us inspiration. And while it is just and righteous to highlight problems that exist everywhere, this article remains an ill informed exaggeration … however, i believe it was due to poor homework, misinformation, and the sad mindset most of my brethren continue to suffer from. If possible, instead of loathing these countries, why not try to visit them… and engage with their institutions so that we may benefit form their experiences and better serve our country. God knows it needs it.Recommend

  • Maani

    Whatever the conditions for Pakistani labor in Dubai, they want to stay there for easy availability of alcohol, sex ( while living away from wives) and the attraction of Dirhams.Recommend

  • dave

    all those who challenge this article to cover the dark side of dubai/uae are the slaves of the sheikh on work visa, they will never agree and keep paiting a rosy picture of UAE.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    That’s how Capitalists flourish !Recommend