V. Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers

The Recruitment Process

The recruitment of migrant construction workers begins in their home countries. Variously, local recruitment companies in the source countries, working on behalf of UAE-based companies, advertise for and enlist workers for jobs in the UAE;26 construction companies dispatch recruitment scouts directly to source countries to work with local recruitment companies;27 or construction companies rely on UAE-based recruitment companies that act as intermediaries between UAE employers and recruitment agencies in the source countries.28

There are also companies in the UAE that import migrant workers for the sole purpose of subcontracting them to other employers, including construction companies, for long- or short-term jobs.29 They are known as “manpower supply agencies.”

The UAE’s Labor Law No. 8 of 1980 (the federal law regulating labor relations throughout the country—see the section “UAE Labor Law,” above) permits only UAE nationals who are licensed by the Ministry of Labor to sponsor migrant workers. This applies to employers who directly recruit migrant workers as well as to those companies who act as intermediaries in the recruitment process.30

Under the UAE Labor Law, employers must pay certain fees to the government for each foreign worker they recruit into the country. These fees include an employment visa request fee of 200 dirhams (AED)($55) and an employment visa issuance fee of 1,000 AED ($273).31 In addition, employers must provide an airline ticket to migrant workers to travel from their home countries to the UAE.

UAE law explicitly forbids UAE recruiters from collecting any fees from prospective migrant workers.32 However, UAE recruitment agents appear to openly flout this law, charging workers these fees instead of requiring the prospective employer to bear the cost. Our researchers talked to five recruitment agencies in the UAE regarding the recruitment of construction workers. Four of these five agencies confirmed that they expect workers to pay for the visa and travel fees that UAE law requires only employers to pay. One recruiter told our researcher that prospective “candidates [migrant workers] will bear the visa and travel costs. We will collect these fees from candidates and pay it to construction companies who apply for their visa. It is of course illegal and I can’t put it on a written contract; it is done in cash. We do it all the time.”33 According to another recruitment agency in Dubai, “We [the agency] will take care of transportation, advertisement, and other costs. We can charge the candidates. People who are candidates will cover all the costs including visa fees and air tickets.”34 A third agent said, “I can provide a company with ten, hundred, or even a thousand workers. We will interview and select them in India and Pakistan. For unskilled workers, we don’t charge the employers anything. The candidates will pay for visa and transportation costs.”35

Workers Human Rights Watch interviewed confirmed the same facts: every single construction worker interviewed said he had been required to pay up-front travel and visa fees to his recruiting agent.

Nataranjan works for a construction and landscaping company in Dubai. He is from the state of Kerala in India. Human Rights Watch interviewed him and 19 other Indian workers who are employed by the same company. Nataranjan said,

I paid 100,000 Indian rupees ($2,200) to an agency in India to get a visa to come here and work. Each of us owes a lot of money to recruiting agents back home.36

Sattar is a construction worker from India who also described the same recruitment process:

I am 42 years [old] and come from Rajasthan in India. I am married with three children. In 2003, I saw a posting by an agency advertising jobs in Dubai. I paid a recruitment agency in India 80,000 Indian rupees ($1,788). This money covered my visa fee, airline ticket, and medical fees. I borrowed the money from friends and family.37

Construction workers recruited from Pakistan also told Human Rights Watch of paying up-front “visa fees.” Ali, who works for Al Hamed Development and Construction Company, said that he had been working in the UAE for the past five years: “I paid an agency in Pakistan 150,000 Pakistani rupees ($2,500) to get the visa to come here. I borrowed the money from friends and family. It took me two years to pay it back.”38

Some workers who cannot raise money for the visa fees by borrowing from friends and family or selling land resort to taking loans from recruiting agencies with exorbitant monthlyinterest rates. Three construction workers from Bangladesh recounted to us how they each took a loan in the amount of 150,000 Bangladeshi taka ($2,210) from a local agency to obtain their visas. They said they paid 11 percent monthly interest on their loans.39 Nandi, an Indian construction worker living in Al Quoz labor camp on the outskirts of Dubai city, said that he had taken a loan from an agent in India for 85,000 rupees ($1,880) and is paying 10 percent monthly interest.40

The wrongful levying of fees from workers does not necessarily stop once recruitment has been accomplished. A Pakistani worker in Dubai, Ali, told Human Rights Watch, “The company [his employer] deducts fees from my salary for expenses that the company is supposed to cover under the law. I have to pay 900 AED ($245) to renew my visa. The company takes this out of my salary in increments. Also, every three years, 500 AED ($136) is deducted for renewal of my work permit card. The health card costs 300 AED ($82) and the company takes this from my salary every year.”41

Unpaid Wages

The most common complaint from construction workers in the UAE, which also appears to form the basis of the vast majority of labor disputes reviewed by the Ministry of Labor and the Dubai labor agencies (see below, “Government Mechanisms Addressing Labor Disputes”), is the withholding of wages by employers. All 60 of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that their employers routinely withheld their wages, and many of the workers we spoke to were owed back wages at the time of the interview. The impact on workers whose wages are withheld for even one month is very serious: they immediately fall into arrears on the debt they owe recruiting agencies in their home countries; they incur additional interest; and they are unable to send money home to their families, who depend on the income earned in the UAE. In some cases, the non-payment of wages means that workers do not have money to buy food or basic goods and end up borrowing money just to survive.

Withholding one-and-a-half or two months’ wages as “security” to prevent workers from “running away” to a better job appears to be accepted as a “custom” among construction companies in the UAE.42 When workers protest or complain about withheld wages, their complaint is not based on this “customary” withholding, but about wages withheld beyond that period. Of course, there is no basis in law for either practice; indeed, to withhold wages violates UAE law requiring employers to pay workers in a timely fashion and keep verifiable records.43 Construction business officials and workers have explained that construction companies withhold wages beyond the two-month “security withholding” when they run into cash flow problems, although that explanation may not be uniformly credible, particularly in the context of Dubai’s booming construction sector.44

The non-payment of wages has been the subject of a number of public protests by construction workers. On September 19, 2005, workers of Al Hamed Development and Construction staged one of the largest public protests in the UAE. Al Hamed Development and Construction is “one of the leading local construction companies in the United Arab Emirates,” which, according to the company’s website, “has achieved throughout the past seven and a half years a growth that has never been achieved in the construction business industry locally[,] regionally[,] or even internationally.”45 As of May 2006, the company had 23 projects under construction with a total value of 1,236,822,793 AED ($336,738,270).46

As part of the strike, 800 workers blocked Dubai’s main thoroughfare to protest the company’s non-payment of their wages for four months, from May to August 2005. They were part of a group of 7,000 workers for Al Hamed whom the company had not paid.47

The minister of labor, Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi, immediately stepped in and required the company to pay the delayed wages “within the next 24 hours.”48 The local media hailed the minister’s swift response as a sign of the government’s determination to send a forceful signal to the construction companies that their practice of not paying wages will no longer be tolerated.49

However, a Pakistani worker for Al Hamed, Ali, told Human Rights Watch that as of April 2006, the company had paid only two of the four months of delayed wages, and had missed a further month since the September protest and government intervention, meaning that Al Hamed still owed its workers three months’ wages. The government had not fined or otherwise punished the company. Moreover, the company dismissed the strike leaders and they were deported. Ali (whose complaint against his employer’s levying of visa and other fees on an ongoing basis is quoted in the section above) described the workers’ impetus to publicly protest in September 2005:

Prior to the September strike, the company hadn’t paid us for four months. We purchased food from a canteen at our labor camp. In September, the canteen stopped giving us credit, and we were completely out of money. That was the final straw that compelled us to take decisive action.

Amongst ourselves, we argued that either we will get deported because of our strike action or it will result in recovering our unpaid wages. We didn’t have a choice; we were willing to risk it.

In September the workers went on strike, and those of us in Dubai took our protest public by blocking the main road in Dubai, the Sheikh Zayed Road. Government officials from an arbitration council came and promised the workers that they would redress their complaints. Immediately, we were paid two months of unpaid wages….

But as of today, not only haven’t we received payment for the other two months, we are owed another month of wages since the strike. The company deported the strike leaders. Since the strike things have worsened.

I earn a fixed salary of 750 AED [$204] monthly for six days of work. The management compels us to work for 11 hours a day with no overtime. I leave the camp at six in the morning and return at seven in the evening.

I haven’t got any vacation days for the past three years. I was promised one month vacation every two years. When I ask the company managers, they don’t give any reason. Different people haven’t got their vacation for different periods of time. 50

On July 14, 2006, in a letter to the minister of labor, Human Rights Watch inquired about any actions taken to resolve the outstanding wage arrears for Al Hamed’s workers, and to hold the company accountable for persistent violation of workers’ rights (see Appendix). A reply from the UAE government, dated September 28, did not address these questions.51

The non-payment of wages in the construction sector appears to be particularly widespread in small companies that employ fewer than 100 workers, as illustrated in the following cases.

Mahmoud A. works for of a small “manpower supply” company (a company that provides labor to other companies), and said that he and his co-workers had not been paid for five months. He recounted their ordeal:

We have not been paid for the past five months, from September 2005 to February 2006. There are 23 of us in this situation. We have filed a complaint with the Permanent Committee for Labor Affairs in Dubai.

We are asking our employer to give us release papers so we can work for another employer. The company has offered to pay us one month of salary to release us and will keep the remaining wages owed us… in exchange for releasing us.

Since December 15, 2005, the company says they don’t have any work for us. The company offered to transfer us to another employer. I went and talked to the workers for this new company, and they told me why do I want to work there? They said they themselves haven’t been paid for four to six months.

Our camp is a farmhouse with five rooms. There are 23 of us living there…. There was a period we didn’t have food to eat and some charitable people brought us food after our story was reported in the newspapers. Before that, we survived on dates from a nearby farm.52

In some cases, the owners of small construction businesses simply abscond without paying their workers at all, leaving the workers stranded without any means of collecting their wages. Sattar, the Rajasthani mentioned above, worked for a small company that employed only 10 workers. Human Rights Watch interviewed Sattar and four of his co-workers who detailed how their employer absconded in this way:

I arrived in Dubai in November 2003. We worked for a small company who sponsored us and brought us here. We built one warehouse and two villas. Since getting here we have lived at the construction sites. We were paid 600 AED ($163) per month.

Starting December 2004, the employer stopped paying our wages. We worked for him until August 2005 without being paid. Then in August 2005, the boss vanished. We have filed complaints with the courts. I just want to get my unpaid wages and go back home.53

In addition to being denied their wages, workers who are abandoned by their employers face perilous conditions. Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 construction workers living in a labor camp belonging to East Coast & Hamriah Company in Sharjah. The camp was comprised of several trailers in decrepit conditions: the toilets were overflowing, and electricity to the camp had been cut off because the company had not paid its bills. The workers feared that the government would deport them as their employment visas were directly tied to their employer.

One of the workers in the camp, Banwari, a 30-year-old Indian, chronicled their troubles with their employer:

The company never paid us on a regular basis. We haven’t been paid for seven months. The company is now bankrupt. In January 2005, we filed complaints with the Ministry of Labor and the Sharjah Federal Court. On April 13, 2005, the Sharjah Federal Court of First Instance issued a verdict on our side against the company. But we haven’t been able to collect any of the money owed to us because the owner, who is a Lebanese man, fled to Canada.54

The workers for the East Coast & Hamriah Company provided Human Rights Watch with copies of court papers showing verdicts against the company. The Sharjah Court had ruled that the company owes its workers sums ranging from 10,037 AED ($2,733) to 21,402 AED ($5,827).55 But none of the workers have been able to collect any of their dues.

“For the past year, we have trekked many times to the Sharjah Court asking the authorities to implement the verdict. But they say there is nothing more they can do,” Banwari said. “We will wait here for the company to pay us until we die or we will commit suicide,” he added, summing up their frustrations and desperation.56 The court rulings in the case did not impose any financial or custodial penalty on the employer, as required by UAE law (see below).

Under UAE law, the East Coast & Hamriah Company could not have registered its business without listing a UAE national as a partner. Although a former project manager for the company confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the company is bankrupt and that its Lebanese owner has fled to Canada,57 it remains unclear why the company’s co-owner, who is a UAE national, is not being held responsible. In our July letter to the minister of labor, Human Rights Watch queried this. The UAE government’s letter in reply contained no specific response on this matter.58

Workers whose wages have been withheld are virtually stuck in their situation, with little or no recourse. They can’t just quit their jobs and return home, because they remain indebted to recruiting agents, and their only hope to repay the debts is to remain in their jobs and hope for eventual payment. As one worker described to Human Rights Watch, “We can’t just go back. Each of us owes a lot of money to recruiting agents back home. How can we go back when we have taken such huge loans?”59

In a variant of the practice of withholding wages, in numerous cases reported in the press, employers “switch contracts” on migrant workers, recruiting them by promising higher wages and then paying them a lower rate. The group of 20 Indian construction workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that their employer was paying them half of the salary they were promised at the time of hiring. One of them, Nataranjan, told Human Rights Watch,

There are about 60 of us working for a construction and landscaping company. I paid an agency in India $2,300 to get a visa to come here and work. For the first six months, we were getting paid $250 per month. Then the company shut down a month ago. The company’s owner owns another business, and he wants us to work for that company for $5 a day. That is half of what we were making before.60

While employers may “switch contracts,” the workers have no freedom to initiate a change of job and go to a different employer. For a migrant worker, changing jobs within the UAE is a cumbersome, bureaucratic process and requires the consent of the original employer. To begin with, labor regulations require a worker to have completed two years of service with his current employer before being entitle to switch employers.61 He may seek only the same kind of job, and there must be no UAE national available for the job.62 Most significantly, in order to move to a new employer, a worker must obtain a “letter of no objection” from his current employer and request the Ministry of Labor to reregister his visa and work permit in the name of the new employer.63 The fact that employers usually hold on to workers’ passports (see below) makes it even more difficult for the worker to switch jobs. Nataranjan explained, “We want our employer to give us a ‘letter of no objection,’ so we can look for another employer and get a decent wage. But he says, ‘Either work for $5 a day or I’ll revoke your visa and you have to go back to India.’”64

Low Wages

Low wages are another of the main grievances of construction workers. The government has been unwilling to put in place a minimum wage, despite a mandate in law dating from 1980 (this is discussed further in the section “UAE Labor Law,” below).

On March 21, 2006, nearly 2,500 workers at the Old Town commercial section of the Burj Dubai complex, where the world’s tallest tower is under construction, protested their working conditions and low wages.65 The protest turned violent after the workers rioted at the end of their daily shift. The workers had been waiting for hours to be transported back to their labor camp.66 S. Kumar, an Indian worker who was present at the protest but did not participate in the rioting, told Human Rights Watch,

I work at the Burj Dubai site. I earn 38 AED [$10.50] for eight hours of work daily. My pay is higher than workers who arrived recently because I have been with the company for 11 years. New workers are paid 28 AED [$7.60] daily and they are unhappy about it.

On March 21, it was mostly the new workers who rioted. They were stressed because after we finish our shift, it takes over an hour to punch out. On that day, the buses were delayed for hours. The workers started to complain. The company’s security forces started to harass them and abuse them verbally. This provoked the rioting. The new workers were demanding pay raises.67

In another recent protest, thousands of workers for the Besix Company, a Brussels based construction conglomerate, staged a strike demanding better wages. On May 16, 2006, more than 8,000 Besix workers laid down their tools and refused to work until their employers met their demands.68 A striking worker told reporters,

We will not go back to work until our demands are met. We are being paid $106 per month and all we demand is that we are paid at least $163 per month. The company has offered a raise to those who have been employed [by Besix] for more than 10 years, but that is the minority of people here. We do not accept that.69

The government deported 50 Besix workers who refused to end their strike. Philippe Dessoy, deputy general manager of Besix’s subsidiary, Six Construct, told Construction Week that “[a]round 50 were taken by police; they were not forced, they went willingly. They did not want to go back to work.”70

Confiscation of Passports

While employers in the UAE are prohibited from confiscating the passports of their employees, employers routinely do this, retaining the passports for the duration of their workers’ employment, typically to ensure that the employees do not abscond. All of the 107 migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch (construction workers and others—see “Methodology,” above), said that their employers had confiscated their passports upon their arrival in the UAE.71

Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, assistant director of follow up and investigation at the Dubai Naturalization and Residency Administration, told Human Rights Watch that according to the law, “they [the employers] should not hold passports.” But he justified the practice by saying, “…sometimes workers lose their passports so the safest place to keep it is at the company offices.”72 Maj. Aref Mohammad Baqer, deputy director of the Human Rights Department at Dubai Police, told Human Rights Watch that companies justify this as customary and also to protect their own interests:

The companies say that holding of passports is part of the business culture. They justify it by saying it would prevent the workers from stealing money or trade secrets and information from the company. Also employers say that by holding on to their workers’ passports, they can guarantee they will get a return on the money they invest on each worker in visa fees and other expenses.73

UAE courts have specifically held this practice to be unlawful. In 2001, the Dubai Court of Cassation issued the following ruling:

[I]t is not permitted for an employer to confiscate the passport of an employee and prevent him from his natural right to travel and move whatever the nature of the relationship that ties them together. Confiscating a passport from his owner is nothing but a method of the many methods that prohibit an employee from travel and this is ruled by the text of Article 329 of the civil procedure law that raises the cases in which preventing travel is permitted, and the condition that the order must be issued by a judge in accordance with the formal and practical procedures as defined by law.74

By withholding workers’ passports, employers exercise an unreasonable degree of control over their workers. Despite the fact that both government officials and UAE courts have reiterated the unlawfulness of this practice, the government has not taken any steps to put an end to it.

Safety and Health Hazards

Death and injury in site accidents

The extent of death and injury of migrant workers is one of the most troubling, if poorly documented, aspects of the construction sector in the UAE. As described below, there appear to be no official countrywide government figures on cases of death and injury of construction workers. The few figures available from government sources cover only Dubai, and even these figures appear to be well below the figures compiled by private sources. This discrepancy in numbers can be attributed in part to the extremely low incidence of companies reporting deaths and injuries to the government.

Dubai Municipality recorded 34 deaths of construction workers at their workplaces in 2004 and 39 deaths in 2005.75 Independent research by a construction trade publication, Construction Week, found that a total of 880 migrant construction workers died in the UAE in 2004: 460 from India, 375 from Pakistan and approximately forty-five from Bangladesh.76 While the Construction Week report did not provide information regarding the cause of death so it is unclear how many were work-related accidents, an official with the Indian Community Welfare Committee, K. Kumar, told Construction Week that he believed up to 30 percent of the deaths of the Indians in the report were related to site accidents.77 The Construction Week investigation provided some breakdown of the information by emirate, citing Indian embassy and consular records of 292 Indian construction worker deaths in Dubai and the northern emirates and 168 in Abu Dhabi, so extrapolating from Kumar’s 30 percent estimate would mean that of 138 Indians who died in site accidents in 2004, 88 were in Dubai and the northern emirates. Given that Dubai’s construction boom far outpaces the rest of the northern emirates, it is difficult to reconcile the likelihood that a high proportion of these estimated 88 Indian deaths were in Dubai with the 34 worksite deaths officially reported there, for all nationalities.

An official at the Indian consulate in Dubai told Human Rights Watch that it has registered 971 death cases in 2005, of which 61 are registered as site accidents. Again, this contrasts sharply with the 39 deaths recorded that year by the Dubai government for all nationalities.

Heat-related illnesses

A serious health hazard faced by construction workers is the extreme climatic conditions. The mean maximum temperatures in the UAE during the months of April to September are well above 90oF (32oC), with humidity in excess of 80 percent.78 For the construction workers who spend the vast majority of their time working under such conditions, heat-related illnesses are a manifestation of dangerous working conditions. The heat and humidity are considered a health hazard especially during the months of July and August, when temperatures regularly peak above 100oF (38oC).

According to the Dubai chapter of the World Safety Organization, heat-related illness is the most important health issue facing construction workers.79 This includes heat-stroke as well as dehydration. As many as 5,000 construction workers per month were brought into the accident and emergency department of Rashid Hospital in Dubai during July and August 2004: Dr. G.Y. Naroo, acting head of the accident and emergency department, told Construction Week, “[O]ur initial assessment of how many heat related [cases] that came into the hospital was 2,500 per month. But once the secondary assessment was done inside the hospital, we realized it came out to be double.”80

Media reports claim that the UAE underreports construction worker heat-related deaths in hospitals.81

In June 2005, several health professionals called for a law banning construction work during the afternoons in July and August. Dr. Rajeev Gupta told Khaleej Times,

During the months of July and August, when the mercury soars to unbearable limits, UAE records a spate of cases where laborers are hospitalized due to heat strokes and cramps. Heat exhaustion or heat stroke is preventable if one takes precautionary measures. The most important of which is not to expose oneself to the sun from eleven in the morning to five in the evening.82

In response, the Ministry of Labor issued a decree in June 2005 banning outdoor work between the hours of 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. during July and August.83 It resulted in reducing heat-related admissions to hospitals, with Dr. Naroo of the Rashid Hospital, Dubai, telling reporters on July 29 that “only 1,200 to 1,500 [cases] are anticipated this month.”84 That the decree did not go even further in reducing heat-related admissions is probably because many companies openly ignored it—government inspectors reported that during July and August 2005, more than 60 percent of the companies inspected did not follow the afternoon break law.85 The authorities did not fine a single company for breaking the law.86

Moreover, the afternoon break rules have not been adopted on a permanent basis. In May 2006, the UAE Contractors’ Association (UAECA) lobbied the government to repeal the 2005 decree because “the re-introduction of the ban this year would create major problems for the sector.”87 In July 2006, the Ministry of Labor announced that it had curtailed the midday break to between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.88 At a press conference to announce the change, when asked about the reduction in hours, Minister of Labor Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi said, “The contractors should be asked about the reduction in the hours, as they are the ones who have decided the timings.”89 The minister’s reply is a clear indication of the construction industry’s ability to influence labor laws and regulations without regard for the health and safety of workers.

Health and safety reporting and oversight deficiencies

The federal government’s failure to monitor the conduct of construction companies is highlighted by the significant discrepancies between government and private sources regarding the annual numbers of dead and injured construction workers. The government has no comprehensive data about numbers, causes of death or injury, or about the identity of those dead or injured, as Dr. Khalid Khazraji, labor undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor, admitted to the media in November 2005.90 The government is clearly not enforcing the mechanism that would assist it to do so: although under UAE law companies must immediately notify the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the police of cases of death and injury of employees at work sites,91 according to government officials quoted in the local media, companies are ignoring their legal obligation in this regard, so true fatality and injury figures remain unknown.92 For example, in 2005, only six construction companies in Dubai (out of nearly six thousand ) filed reports with the Ministry of Labor of death or injury among their workers.93 With nearly six thousand construction companies operating in Dubai, however, injuries at only six companies is hard to fathom. Based on the diverging figures of government and private sources, a number of media reports allege that the construction sector has sought to cover up the extent of death and injury among workers.94

On July 14, 2006, in a letter to the minister of labor, Human Rights Watch asked for information regarding the death and injury rates of construction workers throughout the country and the discrepancy between government figures for death and injury in Dubai (the only official figures publicly available) and the ones reported by Construction Week. The reply received from the UAE government at the end of September did not address this.

UAE law provides that Ministry of Labor inspectors ensure that employers properly comply with safety and health regulations.95 However, since the Ministry employs only 140 inspectors to oversee the practices of over 240,000 businesses, it is doubtful that provisions of the labor law with regard to safety and health of workers are being properly implemented. On September 8, 2006, the government announced plans to increase the number of inspectors to 1,000 within the next 18 months.96

Illegal workers particularly vulnerable

Some migrant construction workers are in the UAE illegally, and are particularly vulnerable because their employers do not want to take responsibility for them when they are injured at the workplace. According to a local Indian social activist who tracks injured workers:

Private foremen, working on behalf of manpower supply companies, hire a van and drive around hiring illegal construction workers. Because there is a high demand for labor in the construction sector, contractors turn to manpower supply companies to address labor shortages. Local government officials are very helpful in fining companies who hire illegal workers but it is a problem. Manpower supply companies are mostly run by expats [expatriates] who employ illegal workers. They are a big part of the problem. Accidents should be reported to the police, but these employers avoid doing so because they don’t want to pay for proper compensation.97

In a visit to the government-run Kuwaiti Hospital in Sharjah on February 21, 2006, Human Rights Watch found two men, one an illegal worker and the status of the other worker unknown, hospitalized due to accidents at construction sites. Both had been “dumped” at the hospital by their employers who did not identify themselves to the hospital authorities.

One, an Indian construction worker named Chekelli, was hospitalized for back injuries. According to an Indian businessman who was helping Chekelli to return to India:


Chekelli was working for a manpower supply company who employed him illegally. Chekelli is from Nizamuddin in Andhra Pradesh in India. He arrived in the UAE on a tourist visa and was subsequently employed by a manpower supply company. He worked at a construction site in Dubai. A large cement bucket fell on his back from a crane, pinning him to the ground. He was admitted to the Kuwaiti Hospital on January 22, 2006. His employer disappeared after dumping the injured man at the hospital. The employer claimed that he had fallen from a staircase.98

The seriousness of Chekalli’s injuries meant that he was paralyzed. He would be returning to India without receiving any compensation for his work-related injuries.

The other patient we met had been transferred from Al Kasima Hospital that same day. He was identifiably also Indian, but no one knew his name or what had happened to him. According to his doctor, he appeared to have suffered a serious head injury. When our researcher tried to interview the patient, the man was confused and incoherent. He could not recall what had happened to him and when asked about his employer or any associates, he kept turning to his pillow, looking for a piece of paper that was not there. His doctor said that he is probably suffering from memory loss. It was not clear who would take care of his return to India, since no information about him was known.

Suicides on the rise

In the past few years, the media has reported several cases of suicide of construction workers distressed about their working conditions. Accurate and reliable data on the number of suicides is, of course, hard to come by. According to Syed Mubarak, labor attaché at the Indian consulate in Dubai, 84 Indian nationals committed suicide in 2005 alone, although it is not clear how many of these cases involved construction workers.99

Human Rights Watch documented one case involving a construction worker who committed suicide at his labor camp after his employer allegedly failed to pay him his wages.100 A labor camp manager in Sonapar, Dubai, told us how on January 9, 2006, Julfikar Korani, a worker from India, committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling of a bathroom inside the camp. According to the camp manager, Julfikar had arrived from Calcutta in June 2005 to work as a carpenter. The camp manager said Julfakir’s monthly wage was 700 AED ($190), and if he worked overtime he could earn up to 1,100 AED ($300), but the manager presented Zulfikar’s wage records showing that the employer had paid him only for one month in the more than six months since he had started working.101

Julfakir’s cousin, Jakir, who lives at the same camp, said Julfakir took a loan of 90,000 Indian rupees ($2,000) to obtain a visa to work in the UAE. Jakir said Julfakir had to repay 6,300 rupees ($140) monthly, and that Julfikar was under financial stress because he was falling behind on his loan repayments.102 The camp manager said that after Julfikar’s suicide, no one cared to investigate; even the police did not ask any questions.103

Construction Week reported on another case of a worker who committed suicide after allegedly suffering wage exploitation at the hands of his employer. Arumugam Venketesan, a 24-year-old Indian national, worked for a manpower supply company. Construction Week reported that “the company that brought him [Venketesan] to Dubai was being paid between 15 AED [$4.10] and 20 AED [$5.50] per hour for the labor they supplied to contractors. But this company passed on a mere 3 AED [$0.80] per hour to its workers.”104 Venketesan’s suicide note is a heart-wrenching and eye-opening account of his daily struggles in the face of exploitation:

I have been made to work without any money for months. Now, for a month I’ve been suffering from a constant headache and wanted to visit a doctor to examine my condition. I asked my camp boss for 50 [$14] but he refused and told me to get back to work… After my death I want the company to pay all my salary dues to my family and repay the financial debt my family has incurred because of them.105

Commenting on the general phenomenon and the circumstances leading to such suicides, Dr. Shiv Prakash, a psychiatrist at the New Medical Center and Hospital in Dubai, was quoted in Construction Week as saying,

When these workers reach here and they realize what they have gotten themselves into and see that they’ve lost everything, they react to it. They feel trapped as they now know that they can’t go back either. There’s no escape. They know that they are in a bonded labor type of situation and are reacting to what they think is the biggest mistake in their life, an irreparable loss. It is the reaction to this loss which can lead to suicidal contemplation.106

26 Interview with manager of a construction company in Dubai who wished to remain anonymous, May 8, 2006.

27 Ibid.

28 Interview withrecruitment agents, Dubai, September 5, 2006.

29 Human Rights Watch interview with Abdulla Saeed Saif Bin Suloom Alfalasi, head of the Work Permit Department in the Ministry of Labor, Dubai, February 22, 2006.

30 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, (accessed August 11, 2006), art. 17. Ministerial order No. 57 (an addendum to Law No. 8) states, in article 2, “In order to be granted permission for mediation in the recruitment and supply of labor from abroad, the following pre-conditions must be met: 1. The applicant must be a U.A.E. National…”

31 Council of Ministers Resolution No. 7 for 2002, Regarding Consolidation of Fees and Penalties Administered by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, (accessed August 8, 2006), art. 1.

32 Ministerial order No. (57) states, in art. 2, “In order to be granted permission for mediation in the recruitment and supply of labor from abroad, the following pre-conditions must be met:… 2. The applicant shall submit an undertaking to the ministry to the effect that it shall not get any commission or remuneration from the labor in consideration of their recruitment whether before or after the acceptance of such labor to work.”
Federal Law No. 8 For 1980, On Regulation od Labor Relations, (accessed August 30, 2006) art. 18 states: “No licensed employment agent or labour supplier shall demand or accept from any worker, whether before or after the latter’s admission to employment, any commission or material reward in return for employment, or charge him for any expenses thereby incurred, except as may be prescribed or approved by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

33 Telephone Interview with recruitment agency official, identity withheld, Dubai, September 5, 2006.

34 Telephone Interview with recruitment agency official, identity withheld, Dubai, September 6, 2006.

35 Telephone interview with head of a labor supply company, identity withheld, Dubai, September 6, 2006.

36 Human Rights Watch interview with Nataranjan, Dubai, February 19, 2006.

37 Human Rights Watch interview with Sattar, Dubai, February 24, 2006.

38 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali, Abu Dhabi, April 3, 2006.

39 Human Rights Watch interview with workers of Al Biladi Construction Company, Dubai, February 20, 2006.

40 Human Rights Watch interview with Nandi, Al Quoz labor camp, February 22, 2006.

41 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali, Abu Dhabi, April 3, 2006.

42 Following a recent protest by hundreds of unpaid workers for a Sharjah-based company, a company official was quoted in the local media as saying “We only hold back salary for 45 days as surety in case of runaways.” See Mahmoud Saberi, “Hundreds Protest Over Non-payment of Wages,” Gulf News, August 29, 2006.

43 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, article 56 states, “Workers employed on yearly or monthly wage basis shall be paid at least once a month; all other workers shall be paid at least once every two weeks.” Article 58 of the same law states, “Evidence of payment to workers of their due wages, irrespective of their amount or nature, shall not be admissible unless it is in the form of documentary proof, admission or oath.” See Ministry of Labor website, (accessed August 30, 2006).

44 The managing director of a construction company in the UAE told our researcher that “depending on the type and size of the companies, some contractors find themselves facing cash flow problems due to a variety of reasons. During the nineties, contractors worked on very low margins (2-3 % of revenue) and thus maintaining cash flow was essential for their survival. It has often been that contractors working for the government sector found themselves waiting for 120 to 180 days to get paid which meant a major cash squeeze. To add insult to injury, contractors were not regulated properly in terms of financial ability and there are still no credit ratings for companies in this part of the world. All this has since changed in the UAE as of 2004 when the construction boom started in Dubai creating perhaps an unprecedented oasis for contractors. Demand has outstripped supply to such a large extent that every contractor I am aware of is working on very high margins. Long gone are the days that contractors wait for payments.” Email correspondence with managing director of a construction company, identity withheld, August 25, 2006.

45 Al Hamed Enterprises website, (accessed October 3, 2006).

46 Ibid.

47 “Workers block Sheikh Zayed Road; Firm told to pay in 24 hours,” Gulf News.

48 Sunita Menon and Diaa Hadid, “Ministry cracks the whip,” Gulf News, September 20, 2005.

49 “Workers block Sheikh Zayed Road; Firm told to pay in 24 hours,” Gulf News.

50 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ali, Abu Dhabi, April 3, 2006.

51 Letter from Ambassador Abdulaziz Nasser Al-Shamsi to Human Rights Watch.

52 Human Rights Watch interview with Mahmoud , Dubai, February 20, 2006.

53 Human Rights Watch interview with Sattar, Dubai, February 19, 2006.

54 Human Rights Watch interview with Banwari, Sharjah, February 25, 2006.

55 According to court documents obtained by Human Rights Watch regarding Lawsuit # 63/2005, Maneer Singh v. East Coast & Hamriah Co., Sharjah Federal Court of First Instance required the defendant to pay the sum of AED 10,037 to the plaintiff and to pay for the plaintiff’s plane ticket to his home country.

According to Lawsuit #335/2005, Shanan Ram Beiru Ram v. East Coast & Hamriah Co., Sharjah Federal Court of First Instance required the defendant to pay AED 21,402 to the plaintiff and to pay for the plaintiff’s plane ticket to his home country.

56 Human Rights Watch interview with Banwari, February 25, 2006.

57 Human Rights Watch interview with a former project manager for East Coast & Hamriah Company, identity withheld, Dubai, February 25, 2005.

58 Letter from Ambassador Abdulaziz Nasser Al-Shamsi to Human Rights Watch.

59 Human Rights Watch interview with Nataranjan, February 19, 2006.

60 Ibid.

61 The UAE Ministry of Labor sets forth its “Conditions for sponsorship transfer approval” on its website,, (accessed August 30, 2006).

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 Human Rights Watch interview with Nataranjan, February 19, 2006.

65 Fattah, “In Dubai, an outcry from Asians for workplace rights,” New York Times.

66 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with S. Kumar, Dubai, April 3, 2006.

67 Ibid.

68 Giuffrida and Egbert, “Was the Besix strike the tipping point for UAE labor,” Construction Week.

69 Ibid.

70 Angela Giuffrida, “Besix workers are sent home”, Construction Week, May 27, 2006.

71 Human Rights Watch interviewed 107 migrant workers including 60 construction workers.

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

73 Human Rights Watch interview with Maj. Aref Mohammad Baqer, Dubai, February 25, 2006.

74 Ruling by Dubai Court of Cassation, Case # 268 (2001), October 27, 2001.

75 Diaa Hadid, “Construction deaths and accidents leap,” Gulf News, January 17, 2006.

76 “Site worker death toll exceeds 800,” Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005. Their investigation calculated fatality figures for migrant workers by compiling data recorded by the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries that have the largest number of workers in the construction sector.

77 Ibid.

78 National Atlas of the United Arab Emirates (University of the United Arab Emirates, 1993) and “Temperature and Humidity in Dubai,” (accessed May 25, 2006).

79 Dubai chapter of World Safety Organization meeting attended by Human Rigths Watch, Dubai, February 23, 2006.

80 “Many Victims of heatstroke are not being accurately diagnosed by A&E hospital staff,” Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.

81 “Facts about UAE Hospital Fatality Figures Revealed,” Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.

82 Anjana Sankar, “Law banning construction work in afternoons urged,” Khaleej Times, June 10, 2005.

83 Ministerial Resolution No. 467 for 2005, (accessed August 11, 2006).

84 Diaa Hadid, “Companies devise ways to flout midday break rule,” Gulf News, July 29, 2005.

85 Diaa Hadid, “60% of companies ignored noon break,” Gulf News, August 31, 2005.

86 Ibid.

87 Conrad Egbert, “Contractors lobby against noon ban,” Construction Week, May 13, 2006.

88 Conrad Egbert, “Contractors allowed to choose hours of the ban,” Construction Week, July 15, 2006.

89 Ibid.

90 Diaa Hadid, “Work-related accidents and deaths ‘going unreported,’” Gulf News, November 21, 2005.

91 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, (accessed August 30, 2006), art. 142; and Ministerial Order No.(32) Year 1982 RE The Determination of retentive Methods and Measures For the Protection of Workers From the Risks Work.

92 Hadid, “Work-related accidents and deaths ‘going unreported,’” Gulf News.

93 Ibid. The source also noted Dubai municipality figures of 39 deaths and 175 injuries for 2005.

94 See, for example, “Facts about UAE Hospital Fatality Figures Revealed,” Construction Week, No. 83, August 19, 2005.

95 Federal Law No. 8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, (accessed August 30, 2006), art. 167.

96 Ivan Gale, “Ministry to intensify labour inspections,” Gulf News, September 8, 2006.

97 Human Rights Watch interview with Indian social activist, identity withhold, February 21, 2006.

98 Human Rights Watch interview with Indian businessman who wished to remain anonymous, Kuwaiti Hospital, Sharjah, February 21, 2006.

99 Human Rights Watch interview with Syed Mubarak, Dubai, February 21, 2006.

100 Human Rights Watch interview with labor camp manager, identity withheld, Sonapar, Dubai, February 24, 2006.

101 Ibid.

102 Human Rights watch interview with Jakir, Sonapar, Dubai, February 24, 2006.

103 Human Rights watch interview with labor camp manager, Sonapar, Dubai.

104 “Worker borrowed to buy stamp for suicide letter,” Construction Week, No. 83, August 6-19, 2005.

105 Ibid.

106 Ibid.