In your face, inequality. Dubai and cheap labour.

Dubai must surely be the only place in the world where the metro has a first class cabin. It’s a symbol of how engrained and how overt the inequality is here.

Emiratis make up about 15% of the population and live off their jackpot win in the birth lottery. The government gives Emirati couples land when they marry and cash payments when they have kids. It funds their healthcare and education and also provides them with highly paid jobs, in the unlikely even that they should need them, within its agencies. When Emiratis picnic in the dunes they toss their trash knowing the government will pay someone else from somewhere else to pick it up.

The rest of the population is expatriates stratified by race. Westerners, about 3% of the population, staff the financial services industries that keep Dubai rich. Filipinos, mostly women, work as maids and in retail, and wait tables. South Asians work as labourers in the never ending maze of construction sites, drive taxis and sweep streets. Dubai has been built on the back of their cheap labour.

Employment conditions are not great, though the government does make some effort to ensure they meet bare minimum standards. Labourers are often housed in camps. They get three square meals a day, but can’t bring their families with them. Employers are required by law to fly their labourers home for a month’s leave a year but they commonly (though illegally) take their passports so they can’t leave at will.

dubai-unskilled-labour

There is something sickening about walking amongst this dramatic inequality, especially when it is so clearly structured along racial lines. There’s a temptation to throw about words like apartheid. But, as a good friend of ours here says: “this is the world”. The reality is that we’d probably feel similarly woozy lining up a Swiss property developed with a Nepali labourer but that problem is harder to see, stretched across continents. The fact that Dubai makes them more visible in a small space doesn’t necessarily make things here any more objectionable.

The low cost labour group we’ve had most contact with are taxi drivers, shuttling us from one consulate to another as we vote and apply for visas. In our sample of about a dozen all but one has been Pakistani. The other was Bangladeshi. They’d been working in Dubai for between two and thirty years. I started asking them whether they liked living here, expecting I’d get the kind of instinctive positive response New Zealanders give strangers when people ask “how are you?” But none of them did. “No, sir” said one. “That’s a complicated question” said another. They miss their families, and the hubbub at home. But the chance to earn five or six times what they’d get driving cabs in Lahore or Peshawar is too much to pass up.

As much as Dubai can be admonished for its feudal feel there is no doubt that it also provides economic opportunity to many who have no other. In a post called Defence of Dubai one blog points to a picture of a young Indian man lifting 40kg bricks in a quarry for four cents a pop. If he was doing similar work in Dubai, goes the argument, he’d earn much more and he’d work with adequate safety boots to boot.

I’m not prepared to offer an unqualified defence of Dubai, but that’s because I can’t defend the way that wealth and welfare falls around the world, rather than because I want to admonish the Emirate. And indeed there is an argument that by moving some of its wealth into the developing world through the remittances of the labourers that sweep its streets and staff its mega malls, Dubai is part of the solution rather than the problem.

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