IV. Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates

Within the UAE’s resident population of 4,100,000, only 20 percent are citizens.6 The vast majority of the rest are migrant workers and their families: as of 2005, there were 2,738,000 migrant workers in the UAE, who make up 95 percent of the UAE workforce in the private sector.7 The UAE’s economy is entirely dependent on foreign workers.

Migrant workers employed in the private sector in the UAE are sponsored by UAE citizens under employment contracts for one to three years, subject to renewal. Once a migrant worker’s work permit expires, if not renewed, the worker (and any accompanying family members) must leave the country, regardless of how many years he or she has resided in the UAE.

The UAE economy, traditionally fueled by the oil sector, has developed more broadly during the past five years. In 2005, crude oil production accounted for 35.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), growing 2.1 percent as compared to the previous year,8 while other sectors grew in the same period at a remarkable rate of 11 percent. The growth of the economy is closely tied to labor-intensive sectors: in 2005 wholesale and retail trade and the restaurant and hotel businesses grew by 15 percent; the manufacturing sector by 13.9 percent; and finance, insurance, and the real estate sectors each by 12 percent.9 Economic success has generated much interest in the UAE, leading to increasing levels of international investment, and the country has emerged as a major Middle East trading and investment hub. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton recently said, “Dubai is a role model of what could be achieved despite the other negative developments in the region. Look at Dubai, which has achieved enormous growth in such a short period of time.”10

The construction boom in the UAE, particularly in the emirate of Dubai, is one of the leading sectors of economic growth in the country (growing 10 percent in 2005), and is among the biggest and fastest growing construction markets in the world. The growth in construction has fueled the growth of the UAE economy, contributing 8 percent to the country’s overall GDP and 11 percent of the non-oil-related GDP in 2005.11 According to a study by the Dubai government, “Dubai construction sector[’s] absolute contribution to the GDP is on an upswing, achieving an increase of 23 percent during the period 2000-2004, and an annual growth rate of 5 percent.”12 The types of construction projects completed in 2004 included 1,436 villas, 393 commercial buildings, and 290 industrial, entertainment, and service buildings.13 A prominent feature of the construction activity in Dubai is the construction of large-scale projects, such as the Emaar Marina Complex, which comprises 190 new residential high-rises and the world’s tallest tower, Burj Dubai.14

As of 2004, there were over 500,000 migrant construction workers in the country, and Human Rights Watch estimates that in 2005 the number of migrant construction workers reached at least 600,000.15 With much of the construction activity concentrated in Dubai, in 2005 there were 304,983 workers employed in that emirate’s construction sector alone.16 Of the total 5,938 construction companies operating in Dubai in 2005,17 the vast majority (76 percent) were small companies employing fewer than 20 workers.18 Although no statistics are available on the breakdown of the workers by their countries of origin, according to available information the majority of migrant construction workers in the UAE come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.19

Source country embassies confirmed that migrant workers employed in the construction sector are all male, that most of them are recruited from rural areas in their home countries, and are typically illiterate. The construction workers interviewed for this report were all male, illiterate, and their ages ranged between 18 and 60 years old. They had paid fees in a range of $2,000-$3,000 to local recruitment agencies in their home countries to obtain employment sponsorship in the UAE. Typically, migrant construction workers enter into employment contracts for a period of one to three years, subject to renewal, at a monthly wage ranging from $106 to $250; on average a migrant construction worker earns $175 a month (the average per capita income in the UAE is $2,106 a month).20

Upon arrival in the UAE, many aspects of the migrant construction workers’ lives are closely tied to their employer. Employers house construction workers in dormitory-style dwellings on the outskirts of urban areas (commonly known as labor camps), and employers usually provide their workers with food or food subsidies (of the men interviewed by Human Rights Watch, some reported that their employer provided them with access to food canteens, while others said they had a food allowance and purchased and prepared their own meals). Construction companies also are obliged under the law to provide emergency health care for their workers, either by providing direct medical care by having doctors on staff, or giving the workers a health card that permits them to use government-owned hospitals.

During visits to the two largest labor camps in Dubai, Al Quoz and Sonapar, Human Rights Watch researchers visited six establishments housing construction workers. A typical dwelling was a small room (12 feet by 9 feet) in which as many as eight workers lived together. Three or four double bunk beds represented the only furniture in each room. The workers used communal bathrooms and showers outside their rooms.

Visibility of Migrant Worker Grievances

Over the past two years, the UAE media has focused significant attention on the grievances of construction workers. Hardly a day passes when a tale of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in general and construction workers in particular does not surface in the UAE. A sampling of news items produces headlines such as “Captive workers escape from housing compound,” “Construction worker dies – third in fortnight,” “Workers protest to get dues of over nine years,” or “Abandoned workers fear their plight will be ignored.”21

Beyond the press, however, a general lack of civil society actors (particularly nongovernmental organizations) in the UAE mean that there are no private actors to fill the void of absent government protection and union championing of migrant workers’ rights in the country (the ban on workers’ organizing is discussed below in the section “Absence of trade unions and collective bargaining”). There are no independent organizations to monitor the construction sector—or any other labor sector—to report and document abuses systematically, and to advocate for migrant workers’ rights. This has produced a situation where the government and the business sector are the sole entities deciding on labor-related issues.

Worker grievances have spilled into public protests, otherwise almost entirely unheard of in the country. Charges of exploitation of construction workers have led to a number of demonstrations, strikes, and most recently rioting by thousands of construction workers. According to government statistics, between May and December 2005 at least eight major strikes took place.22 In September 2005, nearly a thousand construction workers blocked a major highway in Dubai demanding their unpaid wages (see below).23 On March 21, 2006, thousands of construction workers rioted in Dubai, asking for better working conditions and better wages.24 In one of the biggest demonstrations in the country this year, on May 16, 2006, thousands of construction workers working for Besix, a Brussels-based company, went on strike for better wages (their wage was $4 a day) and better working conditions.25

6 “Four Million People Live in the UAE,” Emirates Today (Dubai), July 31, 2006.

7 Diaa Hadid, “Figures Rise in expats,” Gulf News, May 1, 2006. Also see Background Note: United Arab Emirates, U.S. Department of State, (accessed May 25, 2006).

8 United Arab Emirates: Statistical Appendix, IMF Country Report No. 06/256, July 2006.

9 Ibid.

10 Anil Bhoyrul, “Clinton Leads Dubai Praise,” Arabian Business (Dubai), December 4, 2005. (accessed May 20, 2006).

11 United Arab Emirates: Statistical Appendix, IMF Country Report No. 06/256, July 2006.

12 Belaid Rettab and Bader Aldeen Ali Bakheet, “Dubai Construction Sector,” Data Management and Research department, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2005, (accessed June 15, 2006).

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 According to the Ministry of Economy, Planning Sector, there were 512,495 construction workers employed in the UAE, see (accessed May 31, 2006). According to the Ministry of Labor, as quoted in Gulf News, May 1, 2006, the number of migrant workers increased by 17 per cent in 2005, compared to 2004.

16 Rettab and Bakheet, “Dubai Construction Sector.”

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 All of the 60 migrant construction workers whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report came from these four countries.

20 “Oil boom lifts UAE per capita income above Dh91,000,” Gulf News (Dubai), May 13, 2005, (accessed October 3, 2006).

21 Sunita Menon, “Captive workers escape from housing compound,” Gulf News, March 27, 2006; “Construction worker dies – third in fortnight,” 7Days (Dubai), February 14, 2006; Wael Yousef, “Workers protest to get dues of over nine years,” Khaleej Times (Dubai), February 8, 2006; Diaa Hadid, “Abandoned workers fear their plight will be ignored,” Gulf News, March 27, 2006.

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, February 21, 2006.

23 “Workers block Sheikh Zayed Road; Firm told to pay in 24 hours,” Gulf News, September 20, 2005.

24 Hassan M. Fattah, “In Dubai, an outcry from Asians for workplace rights,” The New York Times, March 26, 2006.

25 Angela Giuffrida and Conrad Egbert, “Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labor?” Construction Week (Dubai), May 27, 2006.