Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Abu Dhabi’s Potemkin Village

It’s not a labour camp, it’s the “Saadiyat Accommodation Village” 7,500 men (eventually to house 20,000) from the poorest countries of southern Asia – from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – live and sleep in apparently Utopian comfort when they are not labouring under the Gulf sun on the cultural dream projects of Abu Dhabi’s rulers: the Louvre Museum and the Guggenheim, and the vast emporium built to hold the art treasures of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the Zayed National Museum.

There is a sports field, a laundry service, a chess corner, a tea shop, a table-tennis room, a fresh fruit and grocery store, a mobile phone shop, an outside cash dispenser and money-transfer system through which workers can send home 100 per cent of their earnings (wages are issued electronically), basketball, volleyball fields and an outdoor cinema. There are television rooms to watch programmes in Urdu, Pushtu, Hindi, Bengali and English., special menus  offering “South India” food, “North India” food, Bengali food, Arabic food, and Philippine food. The dormitories are spotlessly clean rooms with six beds, four beds, two beds, one bed – the size of your room depends where you are in the pecking order of contractors’ expertise – and air conditioning, free internet and Skype. There’s health insurance.

But there are more than four million foreign workers in the seven wealthy Emirates – well over two million of them in Abu Dhabi. But labourers can spend four years in the Emirates without once seeing their families – there are no visas for wives or children to visit them. And it’s the contractors who pay the workers – not the UAE. The three massive labour camps in Dubai, at Senaful, al-Quoz and Jebel Ali are no Saadiyats. They are three or four-storey concrete blocks that look more like penitentiaries than villages, a bleak and grassless wasteland in which tens of thousands of workers sleep together, sometimes 14 to a room. There are no books, no sports fields, no entertainment, sometimes no air conditioning. There are locks on the gates and each block has a “guard” – as they are called by the contracting companies. On-site contractor managers have business cards in English which actually state their employment as “Camp Boss”.

The Canadians and Americans used the poor of China to build their trans-Canadian railroad in the 19th century. The English used the Irish to lay the rail tracks and dig the Tube tunnels of London. But this is the 21st century and it is little different.

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