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Jamie Stewart

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The Panorama appreciation society [Apr. 6th, 2009|06:55 pm]
Jamie Stewart
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It can de difficult to express just how frustrating it is, now and again, to be a journalist in a region that lacks so many basic facets of personal liberty. I'm both deliriously happy, and a little ashamed, to read the synopsis of Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires, which will be screened by the BBC in the UK in two hours time, for the highly respected, international current affairs show has chosen to gather its tanks on the lawns of Dubai's migrant labour market.

I'm happy, because, like hundreds of thousands across Dubai, I walk in the shadows of the labourers from the Indian sub-continent (almost) everyday, and while I can't begin to claim to know their way of life, I know of the impossible situation that these men face. I know of their exploitation, while being acutely aware of the glamorous reputation that Dubai manages to convey on the world stage - what Panorama's Ben Anderson calls, "one of the greatest PR triumphs of the past 20 years."

And this too is the source of my shame. As a journalist in Dubai predominantly covering the construction industry, should it not be my job to write the story that Ben Anderson will have the privilege of telling in two hours time? Well, yes, it is. So do we? Well, yes, we do.

Last July, I wrote and we published this article, passionately supportive of the introduction of a minimum wage for Dubai's oversea's labour force. It was very well received; The merest mention of exploitation during an interview I conducted with a local recruitment agent roughly six months ago drew a barrage of criticism from our readers aimed at the poor man. It was a slip of the tongue, though a foolish one; And only last week, our Bahrain editor Ben Millington wrote this excellent piece, exposing the exploitation of migrant labour in fellow GCC nation Bahrain.

To look back even further, our print magazine, which used to be produced in newspaper format, was ordered to become a magazine a couple of years back, after leading with the story that more labourers had died in a single year on the UAE's construction sites, than people had died in the same year in Iraq as a result of the US-led occupation. The report led to our then heroic news editor working closely with Human Rights Watch, aiding the group with research for its paper Building Towers, Cheating Workers.

Many of my interviewees - CEOs, chairmen, etc, have been extremely aware of the conditions in which the workers - often their employees - live. And some of these captaiins of industry, believe it or not, appear to be good men. The problem then is one of economics, as opposed to conscience, or lack of.

With the government maintaining such a large stake in the construction industry, it sets the benchmark in terms of wages. In doing so, its companies, privately owned in theory but in reality little more than an additional branch of government, can bid for contracts based on the wages they choose to pay. They are therefore able to sharply undercut any firm foolhardy enough to attempt to win business while paying its employees a fair wage. The inevitable result of this unregulated bidding war - all hail globalisation  - is that he who dares to exploit the most, remains in business.

You may be earning the right to build and profit from the construction of a gleaming tower that will rise to scrape the edge of the sky, but are you prepared to auction off the dignity of men, in their thousands, in the process? Those who wish to survive in this business, are, and quite often do.

So as I say, we have tried to do our bit. Again, however, to get at the root cause of this exploitation, we must focus on the lack of basic human rights within the state in question. These workers have no voice, no right to protest, or collectively bargain. Their cries go unheard. As their voice-in-waiting, it is the media who should be champing at the bit to fight the good fight for these poor people, yet if you push too far, and threaten NOT to toe the line, you are out.

And this is where the inherent, in-grained, institutionalised stench of self-censorship comes in. Publish the wrong story, convey - in nothing but good faith - the wrong point of view, or, god forbid, criticise the ruler, and it is not just the journalist who is cast into the Gulf without a paddle, but the publication, and most likely the entire publishing company as well.

Like I say, it's frustrating. I remember hearing an American journalist expressing regret that, in her opinion, journalism "failed to ask the right questions" in the aftermath of 9-11, a fact which she felt contributed, ultimately, to the subsequent invasion of Iraq on a trumped-up WMD charge. Tomorrow, after I am able to download and watch tonight's episode of Panorama from some unnamed source, I may well be asking myself: "Do I ask the right questions?"

The difference is that, in the US, you can ask the question...and you can also print the answer. But in certain other states, the "good" journalist is defined through good behaviour - not good journalism. Within a system that is at best unsentimental, it's funny how being "good" can be defined in such very different ways.

*Further to this post, there is an excellent brief interview to accompany the Panorama synopsis here, between Ben Anderson and Dubai-based recruitment agent Almass Pardiwala. Mr Pardiwala - I sincerly hope that you remain Dubai-based after this evening's broadcast.

Email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-07 03:59 pm (UTC)

keep up the good work

I'm from Greece and I'd like to thank you for this excellent piece of work even if it makes me feel ashamed of belonging to the human species but on the other hand it's not the only one these days.

Who knows, maybe in the future we'll come to our senses as a species or vanish alltogether.

(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-09 06:34 pm (UTC)

Re: keep up the good work

I have been living and working in construction for 3 years in the UAE......after 3 months i nearly got on the plane home appalled at the conditions the labourers were working-in...but decided to stay. The UAE takes advantage of globlization and the capitalist system just like the rest of the western world....the guy who made your shoes and picked the food you eat will be working in similar conditions....there will always be somebody waiting to exploit the man next to him.....thats life and nobody will ever change that....certainly not the chattering class


(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-07 04:57 pm (UTC)
Hi this is Almass, & I am a Ms. Almass. The effort of this piece is to open our minds to the prevailing conditions of the migrant workers. We actually look to the Government of UAE to assist in setting up a regulatary body, to put an end to this. Our organization has put a lot at stake, just so that the workers get their due & I strongly believe that Allah will guide all relevant parties in the right direction.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-07 09:02 pm (UTC)

Yes, but...

Jamie,

I liked your post, but as with Hari's recent article, I felt that there was a whole heck of a story being ignored.

At first I started tapping out an email to you, but the email grew to the point where I decided to just make it a post.

If you're interested...

http://jamesohearn.blogspot.com/2009/04/great-unseen-middle.html
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-07 09:53 pm (UTC)

Relating all the media restrictions and realities in the UAE--things I'm well aware of from time working in Kuwait and the KSA--brings to mind a question. Is it not reasonable to think that people who accept working in those circumstances are more focused on fun in the sun and expat salaries than on doing serious work--a.k.a. "are sell-out BS artists?"
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-08 07:04 am (UTC)

Nice post

As long as we keep doing our best to tell the truth and highlight the huge problems, things might eventually change. As the crisis deepens and Dubai is forced to face a future it has to pay for, perhaps the younger Emiratis will be able to clean up the mess...

Keep it up.

Undercover Dragon

http://muscatconfidential.blogspot.com
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-10 08:57 am (UTC)

Lets get our own house in order first!

Let us not get too carried away by knocking Dubai too much for this.

If there are these alleged abuses, then what is the role of the British Major Contractors in these incidents? The interests of British Contractors are significant in the Region.


Where does this leave the major British Contractors and consultants who have relied on Dubai for significant profit streams.

If such abuses can be proved, perhaps the UK government must review it's public procurement policy because not to do so would be complict in any such alledge abuses carried out overseas?
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-14 05:50 am (UTC)

Not all migrant workers are hard done to.

I read with interest all articles on Dubai, good and bad, and I downloaded the Panorama program from the web to watch. We should all remember that Dubai is advancing at such a rate from a third world barren desert to a first world metropolis, that the infrastructure, politics and mindsets are unable to keep up. Dubai is not the idyllic place that the government marketing machine would have the world believe, and it still has a lot of changes to make. These are changes that took a couple of hundred years in Europe.

Some of the articles highlight problems, but it is not all like that. I live in Dubai and run a company here. I moved here in 2007 but prior to that I lived and worked here from 1996 until 2000, and still before that I lived here from 1977 to 1980 as a child whilst my father worked here. I have seen many changes, not all good and certainly not all bad. Dubai is just a different part of the world and I certainly do not wish to see it join the ranks of "political correctness gone mad" like Europe and the US.

Many of our company's staff have been part of the company for over 10 years and are proud to work for us. Yes, most of them live in labour camps and they opted to do so because the high price of rents outside means they couldn't even afford a bedspace. But these loyal staff earn far more than they would at home in the Philippines, India or Nepal. Most of them support anything up to 30 of their relatives, paying for land and schooling and putting food on the table.

Everything is relative.
As a european here on an average salary I couldn't dream of sending a relative through college or buying a farm or feeding my cousins, aunties and uncles. But that's what the "poor" migrant workers do. Migrant workers are not all so badly done to, but I do agree some companies take advantage.

Despite all the media coverage many expats would rather be here than back in the dull and dismal UK.




(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-23 03:06 pm (UTC)

Europeans are feeling the heat of Dubai

Well Iam surprised that Low Paid workers of Indian Subcontinent are thought by Rich Paid Workers of Europe because of Dubai melt down, as it has thrown a lot of them out of buisness and job. British , Italian and French consulting companies with Indian workforce have filled thier pockets all through. I dont understand what moral ground british have to point fingers on Dubai.
I hope Dubai and everybody understands that China, India and Brazil are new superpowers not only in interms of workforce but also interms of skills.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2009-05-10 12:24 pm (UTC)

Reigning the disscussion back in

Several interesting posts here on the Dubai context. But before we get too emotional and/or ranty, I just refer to some facts in the Human Rights Watch report mentioned in desert-blogger's piece- Building Tower's: Cheating Workers, bearing in mind that HRW has no 'sensationalist' agenda.


-the average salary in the UAE is $2,106 per month

-the average salary of a construction worker is $175 (range $106-$250)

-95% of the work force of UAE is foriegn, of that figure, 20% are employed in construction, that is 600,000 migrant constuction workers, overwhelminngly from SouthEast Asia (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka + Pakistan)

-nearly all come via a local recruitment agency which charges them $2000-$3000 to handle airfare and administrative costs, both of which the employer should be responsible for, by law.

-it is common practice that the employer confiscates the worker's passport and withholds the first two months wages, known as "security withholding". This means that the workers fall immediately into arrears on their loan repayments, which are often at extortionate rates of interest.

-they are usually expected to work 11hr days 6am-7pm. With the exception of the months of July and August when there is a break 12:30-3pm due to the heat. (This was initially 12:30-4pm based on World Safely Organisation advice, after it was revealed that 5000 workers a month were being admitted to hospital for heat stroke. It was reduced after a successful construction firm lobby.)

-the average dwelling in the labour camps on the outskits of town are 12 ft by 9ft in which eight people live. The only furniture consists of the bunk beds. Toilets and showers are communal. There have been reports that these overflow and that raw sewage enters their quarters.

-The official UAE figure of those who dies in 2005 in construction work related accidents stands at 36. However, a private investigation by Construction Weekly magazine reveals that at least 61 deaths were recorded by the Indian Embassy alone. The magazine puts the estimate put the figure at 880.

-construction workers have not right to strike. However, in 2005, violence erupted after workers protested against the fact that their wages had been withheld for 4 months. When the canteen in their compound refused to give them any more food on credit, they staged their illegal protest. The Minister for Labour intervened and declared that they should be paid their just dues. They were paid two months of the missing wages and the leaders of the protest were deported. The company has since fallen behind another month's worth of wages.

-if they wish to change jobs a.) they have to have worked for the same company for a minimum of two years b.) they can not change profession c.) they must acquire a 'Letter of no Objection' from their current emloyer d.) there must be no Emirati citizen who wants the job.

-there are just 140 inspectors for 240,000 businesses employing migrant workers and no NGO's advocating on the workers' behalf.

The report was published in 2005 but up-to-date figures do not exist, to my knowledge. Although I would appreciate them if anyone has found any.

OK, there are positive aspects in Dubai's development, but for those migrant workers who ARE mistreated there is NO-ONE advocating on their behalf. In the UK we would be appalled if an industry lied about work related death figures. We cannot apply double standards here. Just because some workers are better off in Dubai than in their home countries just further illustrates the extent of global injustice. It is not an excuse for shoulder-shrugging and 'get-what-you're-given-and-like-it' attitudes.

Keep up the outrage desert-blogger!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: creditrpservice
2010-09-02 05:20 am (UTC)

creditrpservice

Great job you still manage to do your work. Excellent you have brief interview to accompany the panorama synopsis.. More reports... Thanks
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