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Dark side of Dubai's infrastructure boom

DUBAI: Beyond Dubai's shimmering skyscrapers lies Sonapur, a crowded and rundown camp for Asian labourers toiling on the city's monumental projects.

Sonapur, or the golden place in Hindi, once a burial ground, is now a collection of tenements housing more than 150,000 workers, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, according to a UAE-based Indian community organisation.

"Welcome to the damaged camp," Ghulam Mustafa, 35, said with a smile at the entrance of one 35-room compound where he and some 600 other migrant workers live in this desolate desert area on Dubai's fringe.

Past a battered metal gate painted orange, dozens of men sit around a courtyard littered with broken furniture and piles of garbage bags.

The one-storey structure resembles a school with rooms measuring 12 by 12 feet lining a dank and poorly-lit corridor.

Food is cooked on gas stoves attached to propane cylinders.

Niaz Hussein, 24, shares one room with 14 others, most of whom sleep on the floor since there are only two bunk beds inside. He earns dirhams ($1.10) an hour. If he's lucky, he can make about 1,000 dirhams a month, out of which he has to spend 342 dirhams on food and rent and pay back the fees charged by the recruiting agency that brought him to Dubai and arranged for his work permit.

Those fees can be as high as 12,000 dirhams.

Hussein is working on a road construction project but has not been paid for more than a month.

The plight of Asian labourers in the UAE came into focus again on March 21 when 2,500 rioted at the construction site of Burj Dubai, slated to be the world's tallest skyscraper. Some destroyed vehicles and equipment.

Their employer, a British-UAE joint venture called Al-Naboodah Laing O'Rourke, blamed the incident on "misinformation and misunderstanding", adding that the issue had been resolved.

Burj Dubai's owner, Emaar, the real estate powerhouse controlled by the Dubai government, was swift to issue a terse statement that the incident had nothing to do with the tower and that work there was uninterrupted.

The Indian consulate's labour and welfare consul B S Mubarak said he gets at least 10 complaints a month mostly related to unpaid and late wages and that the incident at Burj Dubai may have been sparked by the long queues that workers have to endure to punch their timecards.

Indians and Pakistanis make up nearly 45pc of the UAE's population of about four million. Emiratis account for only 20pc.

The riot prompted the New York-based Human Rights Watch to issue a statement on March 30 calling on the UAE government to "end abusive labour practices" describing labour conditions as "less than human".

Labour Minister Ali Al Kaabi called the statement "insane and illogical."

"The problem is very serious," K Kumar, 57, the head of the Indian Community Welfare Committee said.

"If you want to keep the situation under control, they (government) have to give more attention to these issues." Trouble often begins when subcontractors run into financial difficulties or are not paid on time because of delays in getting their work certified by main contractors on a project.

"The blue-collar workers are the last link in the chain so they are the worst affected," Kumar said.



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