Friday, 2 July 2010

A labor of love

Human Rights Watch in April released a report entitled "Slow Reform", criticizing the state of migrant rights in in a number of Middle Eastern countries, but specifically in the Gulf:

Governments have dragged their feet on reforms to the immigration sponsorship system, which contributes to forced labor and trafficking...The United Arab Emirates’ standard contract fails to provide for any rest days at all. Neither the UAE nor Singapore’s contract establishes rights to overtime pay or limits to hours of work.

It is a constant refrain from a number of journalists that the glory of Dubai was built on the backs of proverbial slaves, harkening images of the bygone Egyptian pyramids.  For its part, the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is the second-largest of 7 emirates, insists that it is working on sincere labor reform. Yet, the difficulties still remain. Nearly 80% of laborers in Dubai do not have health insurance, for example. It is these difficulties borne out of the circumstances of economic migration. For thousands - if not millions - of young Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Indian and Pakistani men, the opportunity to work in the Gulf is simply the best means to supporting their families.

This is an extensive topic that requires a more involved discussion. Suffice it to say that these days there is far greater awareness and vigilance of labor rights and worker conditions. Recently a camp of laborers erupted in protest after non-payment of wages. These are difficult conditions that are not isolated. For many of these workers, they do not want to return home where jobs may not be as lucrative.

What is also clear, however, is that there is an active civil society in Dubai and the UAE that responds to the plight of poorer residences. There is the official Dubai Cares charity. Yet, there are also individual residents, schools, and other networks that band together to provide 'care packages' to laborers, or organize around other initiatives. Today, I went to The Shelter where a charity drive was being held. The outpouring of support with both supplies and volunteers was overwhelming. It was a reminder again that amidst the materialism and excess of Dubai, there exists a vibrant, diverse community that is aware, compassionate, and humble.

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