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Are Human Rights Economically Viable? The Case of The United Arab Emirates

The Arabtec worker strike that has resulted in a rumored 200 cases of deportation from the United Arab Emirates has received minimal attention from news outlets, including Al Jazeera. If this had happened anytime during the years of global recession, between 2008 and 2011, chances are there would have been mass, pedantic and overtly harsh analyses regarding the U.A.E. and its exploitative practices resembling “modern-day slavery”. Today, investors see their profits increase once again, and the international community is much slower on the blaming. Is this all part of a vicious circle of greed?

Investments, growth and workers’ rights under the microscope

The U.A.E. maintains a labour force saturated with migrant workers, and its growth is built on oil, tourism and foreign investment. Simply put, projects such as the Louvre extension in Abu Dhabi cannot be achieved in other parts of the world as conveniently as they can be in the U.A.E. due to low wages, scale of workforce and wealth. Due to tax-free incentives and fertile investment opportunities, international interest has reached such large proportions that it has become integrated very closely with the government agenda. The government of Abu Dhabi is reportedly contributing a staggering US$ 1.4 billion to the Agence France Museum (parent agency for the Louvre in France), as well as to the expansion and development of the New York University Abu Dhabi campus with an initial offering of US$ 50 million.

Out of all the Emirates in the U.A.E., Dubai suffered the worst backlash from the 2008 recession until late 2011. Recovery included a sizeable bailout from Abu Dhabi and the slowing down or halting of many of its privately funded infrastructure projects. Many construction workers were dismissed by their employers who escaped heavy debts and bankruptcy, leaving scores of migrant workers without their passports, salaries, or the provisions of their contracts.

In 2008, there was a large amount of international pressure to address claims of labour exploitation in the U.A.E. in the name of ethics (especially in relation to damaging press). The U.A.E. did set up the mechanisms and regulations to ensure a somewhat appropriate standard of labour but the actual conditions of these men did not improve due to the harsh budget cuts and rising debt that accompanied Dubai, and due to Abu Dhabi’s sharp fall during the recession. The follow-up report by Human Rights Watch to their 2008 report claimed that the government efforts in response to the initial report were largely ineffective. The fact that contractors openly flouted labour regulations in favour of re-attracting projects was something the government was inclined to turn a blind eye to.

In a country like the U.A.E. where there are many companies bidding for valuable contracts, government-owned companies included, exploitive agencies seek to reduce costs as far as possible, often imposing their fees on their workers as part of their sponsorship agreement. There is Labour law in place in the U.A.E. that attempts to mend its reputation for exploitive labour practices and you’ll even see on occasion, highly censored, yet positive articles regarding the improvement in construction workers living conditions for example. In recent years, due to international pressure, there has been a renewed effort to enforce these laws and there has been visible evidence of improvements in the living conditions of many of these men. In addition, there are unconfirmed reports by non-government entities of government-sponsored projects underway to make all workers aware of the contractual rights via translation efforts.

The increased pressure to meet demands this time around has been exemplified in the plight of the Arabtec strike. Symbolic because it is within a company that has part of international projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and significant because poor working conditions is a grievance not often acted upon due to the legal and personal risks to the workers. These men were willing to jeopardize their livelihood, status in the U.A.E. and protection for a US$ 50 raise: such demands are deemed illegal and everyone is simply referred back to their contracts which they signed at a minimum of 2 years ago, a different time in Dubai’s economy.



The trend of “Dubai-bashing”

While having been heavily criticized during the recession, the U.A.E. is certainly not the only country that practices frowned-upon methods of massive labour importing: many other countries rely n similar practices to diversify their economies. It is key to note that the majority of  negative press about Dubai’s expatriates and rising debt were in the shadow of the recession and such international interest in expatriate worker’s rights seemed to wane by 2012 when the U.A.E. economy was on the rise again.

In a scathing article by BBC’s Paul Moss, the trend of “Dubai-bashing” is epitomized as criticizing the lifestyle of the gluttonous, the over-indulgent and the bourgeoisie; it criticizes the ”disgustingly rich”, and condemns the treatment of the labour force in the U.A.E. This article dares to suggest that all investor and consumer countries who take part in global growth have a share of responsibility in the abysmal state of workers’ right in the U.A.E.. As to the question of whether human rights are economically viable: no, they are not. Government action is not human-centric, but rather growth-centric: it focuses on political stability and good foreign relations in order to attract investment.

– Hiba Ganta


Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercial  Tom Olliver, Creative Commons, Flickr

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