[URBANTH-L] NEWS: Dubai's glitz lost in grim life. Migrant laborers hit hard ...

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Mon May 11 15:08:22 EDT 2009

Dubai's glitz lost in grim life

Migrant laborers have been hit hard since the city's construction boom came 
to a screeching halt.
By Danna Harman | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the May 3, 2009 edition

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - In Dubai's gritty Indian neighborhood of 
Karama, far from the luxury hotels and glitzy malls, laborers gather in 
dilapidated offices and speak of their shame.

The global economic recession and the construction slowdown have hit hard in 
the Middle East's most lavish metropolis. The massive construction boom of 
the last six years, which lured hundreds of thousands of expatriates, has 
come to a screeching halt.

Everyone from architects to marketing agents is losing jobs. But arguably, 
those suffering most are the migrant laborers who sold everything back home 
in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or elsewhere to come make money stacking 
bricks, watering lawns, and cleaning floors.

"There has been a lot of press on how the recession is affecting the 
professional expats," notes Paul Dyer, a researcher at the Dubai School of 
Government. "But ... [low-skilled laborers] and their suffering have become 
practically invisible to us."

Gotham Lingaiah, a farmer with a fifth-grade education, says the recruiting 
agent who came to his Indian village two years ago promised riches in Dubai. 
His extended family borrowed from friends and neighbors to scrape together 
the 14,000 dirhams ($3,800) for secure passage, a visa, and work in Dubai. 
Mr. Lingaiah calculated he could repay the debt in two years and then start 
sending his earnings home.
When he arrived last year, however, he was sorely disappointed. Instead of 
earning 1,500 dirhams ($408) a month as promised, he was making 330 dirhams 
working long hours. But living sparingly, he sent a little money home every 

In November, his project was canceled and he was told to leave. The debt he 
accrued coming here is still far from paid off. "I am so sorry I am here," 
he says.

Since migrant workers starting coming in force in the 1970s, there have been 
stories of workers hoodwinked by corrupt agents and unscrupulous 

But there were also many success stories. Last year alone, migrants sent an 
estimated $45 billion in remittances to India, according to the World Bank.

Inspired by such success, laborers came here with big dreams. Lingaiah 
planned to save up for his sister's wedding back in Hyderabad, India. J. 
Anjaiah promised his daughters dowries and told his parents in India's 
Karimnagar Province that he would support them in their old age. Panjala 
Sureshkumar of Kerala wanted "to do something with myself ... [to] become 

Dubai disappointed them all.

Lingaiah's construction project was canceled. Mr. Anjaiah broke his foot in 
a fall and was fired from his gardening job. And Mr. Sureshkumar lost his 
cleaning job when the hotel he was working in closed two wings. Their work 
no longer required, they're now expected to disappear.

"At first it was fantastic," explains Anjaiah. But with no more profits to 
be made, he plans to return to Kerala and farm mangoes, a family tradition 
for generations. "I thought I could do something better. But I could not," 
he says.

For some, just getting home seems insurmountable - and shameful.

"I have nothing," Sureshkumar says quietly, holding his palms up. No money, 
not even a passport, which was confiscated by the agents who brought him 

"It is a great shame to go home like this," admits Lingaiah. "But if I stay 
here, I fear I might go hungry or be thrown in jail. And then I will cause 
even graver disappointment to my family."

The government does little to remedy the problem, charges Nicholas McGeehan, 
who as a former oil company contractor in the Emirates from 2002-06 got 
insight on the issue from within the system.

"The government knows exactly what is going on, because the same guys who 
run the government own the construction companies and the developers," 
writes Mr. McGeehan by e-mail from Italy, where he runs an organization 
called Mafiwasta, which addresses migrant labor issues in the Gulf. He 
describes the government's treatment of migrants as "ruthless, arrogant, 
racist, and greedy."

Humaid bin Dimas, a Ministry of Labor spokesman, would "not confirm or deny 
any statistics" regarding treatment, visa cancellations, or departures from 
the country. But in a rare statement in April, the ministry said it had "put 
together a new strategy to improve living and working conditions for 
labourers," including an offensive against "unscrupulous foreign recruitment 

In the meantime, concerned individuals such as McGeehan are trying to fill 
in the gaps. Devanapally Shashikala, an Indian doctor, runs a small private 
charity out of a third-floor apartment in Karama that provides healthcare, 
food, clothing, and sometimes plane tickets home to the needy migrants. K.V. 
Shamsudheen, a successful stock broker who started a charity called Pravasi 
Bandhu Welfare Trust in 2001, says that in addition to money, the laborers 
need motivation.

"They feel down and out, and they need to be reminded that it is up to them 
to get through this," he says. He hosts a popular motivational weekly radio 
program and also conducts workshops around the Gulf in which he talks about 
goal setting, saving, and time management.

"I tell them - you must hold your head high.... Do not cry." 

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