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Dubai’s towering skyscrapers are built by a “horrifically exploitative labor system”

A recent labor strike against Arabtec, the Dubai-based construction firm responsible for building the United Arab Emirates’s version of the Louvre, highlights the latent stirrings of unrest in the country, which could prove to be a stumbling block toward stability going forward.

Thousands of laborers refused to show up for work at construction sites owned by Arabtec last week, demanding back wages owed, improved working conditions and pay raises. The illegal, four-day strike (all labor strikes are against UAE law) was quickly quashed as 200 protestors were taken into custody and await deportation.

“The strike is a reflection of the desperation that workers feel, which is a result of a horrifically exploitative labor system,” said Nicholas McGeehan, Middle East consultant at Human Rights Watch. “Given that strikes are met with deportation orders, workers don’t take these actions lightly.”

The UAE government should not be so quick to disregard this rare public showing of discontent either. Unlike other Middle Eastern states, the UAE has been largely untouched by the Arab Spring due to its wealth and small, indulged indigenous population. But its greatest Achilles heel is the base upon which its economy is built. Aside from Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, construction is a major driver of its GDP, and like much of the wider UAE economy, it’s built on the backs of foreign labor.

According to the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, foreign migrant workers make up roughly 90% of the country’s labor force. Yet many blue-collar workers are held in conditions akin to indentured servitude. Passports are confiscated, debt bondage to employers is common, and working conditions are appalling.

Workers interviewed by Al Jazeera said they earn between $102 to $325 a month, live in cramped rooms with a multitude of other men and are denied annual leaves by their employers. Human Rights Watch has also documented unsafe working conditions and inhumane demands placed on workers, including working for 12-hour days in the stifling heat. McGeehan says any attempts by the UAE to reform labor laws have been “cosmetic” at best and do not tackle the major issue of enforcement. Having a law is of little use if employers are not held accountable.

This protest should serve as a wakeup call for the UAE. In a post-Arab Spring world, there is more focus in the region now on classism and basic human rights. Simply deporting workers that protest is a short-sighted solution. Of the UAE’s 8 million people, the vast majority do not benefit from its welfare state policies. The threat to the UAE’s stability lies in the masses of abused laborers that currently reside in the country. To ignore their plight is to invite trouble.

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