Migrant workers in Dubai: “They are sucking our blood"

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Their room is about 10 square metres. Cockroaches scuttle in and out a bag of rice. In one corner there is a television, in another an old refrigerator. There are some cheap aluminum pans under a wobbly table. On one of the three bunk beds suitcases and blankets are piled up. The air conditioning is old and black with dirt and grease. This is Dubai and it does not want to show its darker sides.

By Judith Spiegel, Dubai

Three Egyptian men live in this room. One of them is cutting onions for lunch. The other makes tea for the guests. The third just looks desperate and angry.

"We are lucky, the others share with six," one of them says. The ‘others’ are the hundreds of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis and Africans who live in Sonapur.

Silence is king
You cannot find Sonapur on a map. It is better to ignore its existence, or so the authorities of Dubai must have thought. People who live in Sonapur know that Dubai does not show its darker sides. Silence is king in Sonapur; its inhabitants have learned to shut up.

All of them had to give their passports to the companies who hired them and brought them here. They all fear that if they say anything to journalists they may lose their job. All of them look tired; the expression in their eyes is one of fear and hopelessness. They are lonely without their families. There is absolutely nothing to do in the shabby concrete township of Sonapur.

The people who live here have built Dubai; they built the hotels where they can never ever sleep, the houses where they can never ever live. Per month, they make around 1,200 dirhams (250 euros), of which they send a large part home. Still, it is better than home, they say.

No choice
Take Nadim Udin, a 42-year-old Bengali. "I came six years ago. I am an electrician, now. I repair the headsets they distribute in Emirates Airlines," he says. He doesn’t have a choice. "I am from a poor family and only Dubai gives us working visa, and not even that anymore these days."

The men who have gathered around Nadim look afraid. They do not like their friend talking to strangers. Everybody is afraid, even the big guy from Ghana a few flats away. "You are the first woman I have ever seen in this camp. This place is horrible. But don’t write my name please, my company will not like it that I talk about it.”

Dark side of Dubai
This is a pattern, not only in Sonapur but all over Dubai. "It is better not to talk about this," says one man. "You have to be careful if you touch upon this subject," says the other. "I do not want my name to be published," says number three.

Dubai may look nice but under the surface it is not so shiny. And you’d better not talk about it. "If you shut up, you will eat honey" is an expression popular in the Gulf region.

Human rights activists like lawyer Mohammed al Mansouri did not shut up and talked about injustices and democracy. He has been detained since July. Nobody knows his whereabouts, or those of tens of other political prisoners. This was reason for the European Parliament to issue a resolution on 23 October in which it calls on the United Arab Emirates to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The UAE authorities were furious. The speaker of the Federal National Council (FNC) – a sort of parliament – talked about "false claims issued by the EU parliament, which is considered a blatant interference in the affairs of our country".

Official lies
Regarding the foreign workers, another issue raised by the EU, the FNC responded by saying that "the foreign workforce has been provided with favorable conditions by way of proper housing, fair wages and a human working environment". It only takes a bus ride to Sonapur to know this is a blatant lie. But better not say this in public.

In the enclosed safety of a taxi, driver Ahmed from Pakistan dares to talk: "They would give me my passport back after one year, but they didn’t. If I complain about these things, they will terminate me; put me on a black list."

Ahmed works seven days a week 12 hours a day, if the supervisor finds a cigarette butt in his car, he is fined 200 dirhams (42 euros). "Madam, they are sucking our blood, please write it down," he says.