The Tower that Slaves Built

August 2, 2007 by  


By Rafia Zakaria

While newspapers across the Middle East and South Asia spend much time decrying the imperialism of Western countries’ poor treatment of Muslim minorities, little or no energy is spent discussing the plight of the Gulf’s modern-day slaves, whose masters claim to be the most authentic and representative Muslims

Burj Dubai

According to news reports Burj Dubai is set to overtake Taipei 101 and the Sears Tower as the world’s tallest building in the coming months. The Burj, which means tower in Arabic, will have 124 floors upon completion, as well as a luxury hotel and four luxury swimming pools along with offices and residential units. Designed to resemble a glittering desert flower, the Burj Dubai when completed will also be the tallest manmade object ever built on Earth.

Indeed, given this iconic position on the human landscape, the Burj is not unlike the Egyptian pyramids of yesteryears which were also testaments to the wealth and might of the burgeoning Pharoanic kingdom and commanded awe and respect from all who viewed them. Undoubtedly the United Arab Emirates is now a world trading giant, having successfully harnessed the forces of globalisation and free market capitalism in its favour. Its increasingly crowded skyline and its cavalcade of luxury shopping malls, selling all manner of luxury items from Mikimoto pearls to Armani suits, are testament to its voracious desire to be respected as an international destination for investors and tourists.

And if one is to stretch the pyramid comparison a little further, the same problem confronts Burj Dubai as did the Egyptian pyramids. Are the pyramids to be revered and admired as symbols of a powerful empire; or are they to be reviled as physical testaments of slavery: the ultimate reduction of human beings to mere instruments in the service of an oppressive regime? Is Burj Dubai a symbol of progress or a mocking tribute the existence of modern-day slaves?

According to “Building Towers: Cheating Workers”, the latest report issued by Human Rights Watch, construction workers in the Gulf States face some of the most horrendous work environments on the planet. Forced to work sixteen- to twenty-hour days in debilitating heat, without any vacation for years and with compensation withheld for months on end, the Dubai construction workers eke out an existence devoid of any dignity or freedom. Living at the mercy of the employers, who literally “own” their employment visas and hence their freedom of movement, these modern day slaves are unable to leave any employer for fear of deportation.

The employers, on the other hand, can, like the Pharoanic rulers of Egypt, easily trade them for cheaper workers or sell them via trading their employment contracts to other companies.

In addition to the restricted freedom of movement, companies in the UAE, both large and small, often refuse to pay these workers since few legal enforcement mechanisms exist to force them to do so. According to the Report, Al-Hamed Development and Construction, a company worth over $300 million dollars and one of the fastest growing construction companies in the world, failed to pay 7000 of its construction workers in 2005-2006. The smaller companies are also notorious for absconding or simply closing up shop without paying their workers.

The fact that the construction workers are “guests” without equivalent legal rights that would enable to contest such actions without fears of reprisals, further entrenches their status as slaves in a society that surely treats them as such. In addition, most workers still owe debts to their handlers and so cannot return without wages to pay them off; so they are caught in a vicious circle of persecution.

The living conditions of construction workers who build towers such as Burj Dubai are further proof of their slave status. Tours of labour camps in Dubai and other Emirates have revealed that workers were often housed in abject conditions without proper plumbing or even sleeping facilities. In one camp, run by the East Coast and Hamriah Company in Sharjah, human rights workers found overflowing toilets and no electricity because the company had failed to pay its bills. Workers who were still living in the camp had not been paid for seven months despite their continuing work on the Company’s projects. In addition to problems with working conditions, many workers who die while on the job are buried and forgotten with little notice or compensation to families abroad.

Taken cumulatively, the condition of the Pakistani, Indian, Sri-Lankan and Bangladeshi workers who make projects such as Burj Dubai possible expose the ugliest and most repugnant face of supposed “progress” in the Gulf States. While newspapers across the Middle East and South Asia spend much time decrying the imperialism of Western countries’ poor treatment of Muslim minorities, little or no energy is spent discussing the plight of these modern-day slaves, whose masters claim to be the most authentic and representative Muslims. Where indeed are the Islamic values of justice, piety and egalitarianism when it comes to foreign workers imported to be human machines?

Sky-scrapers and fancy malls exist all around the world, but the Gulf States are unique in creating a system of labour exploitation where workers are not only denied citizenship despite years of residence but are treated as mere chattel unworthy of even the barest minimum of respect. Housed in camps, fed like cows and worked like horses they are the most reprehensible example of human subjugation in the world today.

While the skylines of city states like Dubai and Sharjah may increasingly resemble those of New York, London and Chicago, underneath the façade of glittering metal and overblown luxuriousness hides the ugly secret of a form of exploitation that is truly unparalleled anywhere else in the developed world. Burj Dubai may well resemble its skyscraper counterparts in terms of structural similarities, but in the oppression and exploitation of its genesis it is no better than a Pharoanic pyramid, a relic of an archaic age that fails to respect the dignity of the human being.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).

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