The truth about labourers in one of the world’s least-liberated countries

Photo by Daria Sannikova on

I lived in the UAE for ten years, never once feeling fear or experiencing suffering. I’m a white expat with a British passport: why should I? However, for the Asian majority of the UAE’s 90% expatriate workforce, fear and suffering are routine. Migrant workers, in particular blue collar (manual labour) workers, suffer daily and live in constant fear. Fear that their employer, who is illegally withholding their passport, will keep them prisoner in the country forever.[1] Fear that their family will die of starvation because their company has not paid them in two months.[2] Fear that they themselves will suffer breathing problems as their 10×12 foot room is congested with 13 other men.[3]

Driving to Abu Dhabi airport at 5:30am, the roads are clogged with buses. Inside, migrant workers stoop like hunchbacks. All have been up since 5:00am, whilst those who wish to earn extra money left their camps at 4:00am and will not return until 10:00pm. An 18hr working day, 6, or sometimes 7 days a week is not unheard of.[4] As you drive past them, a few wave, but most just stare bleakly out of dirty windows.

There are over 1000 labour camps in the capital city of Abu Dhabi’s industrial area of Musaffah alone, and up to 6000 in Dubai. Government guidelines state strict living regulations: the area assigned to each person should not be less than 3sq/m; the maximum number allocated for each bedroom is 8-10 persons; triple-bunk-beds are not allowed; one urinal for each 25 persons; one place for bathing, washbowl and toilet for each 8 persons. (Notice there are no principles relating to food quality.) It is easy for the government to set these protocols, even easier for me to list them and easier still for you to read them. But envisage actually living them. Ten to a room: different nationalities and cultures. 3sq/m: barely room for a bed, let alone personal belongings.[5] One urinal for 25 men: imagine the queues.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 40-50% of companies comply with government-set labour camp regulations, to the extent that workers cite poor living conditions and poor quality of food, not the standard 8-12hr working day, as the main reasons for their depression. One worker, who used to share a 10×12 foot room with 13 other men, complains, “When we all gather in our room to go to bed, there is not enough space left for us to walk through. We cannot even sit comfortably.”[6] Another labourer implies that workers are, however, unified in their suffering: “We are one in our struggle to earn maximum for our families back home.”[7]

City-centre labour camps house similar conditions, only the price for the workers is higher. Illegal practices such as triple-bunking and sleeping 15 men in halls and bedrooms, are commonplace. One worker, who shares a three-bedroom apartment with 45 men, recounts how every month each room must bribe the building security guard with 100AED [20GBP] to not report their illegal conditions.[8]

Not a large expense? For a migrant Asian worker, 100AED is extortionate. To put it into perspective, whilst working on the Burj Khalifa site in 2006, a high-earning worker earnt 38AED [8.07GBP] for eight hours of work daily.[9] That’s 1.01GBP per/hr. Minimum wage in the UK at the time was 5.35GBP per/hr. At the same site, new workers were paid a shocking 28AED [5.94GBP] daily; a meagre 74p per/hr.[10] In fact, low pay was the leading reason for the 2006-2007 workers’ strikes at the Burj site and at the Dubai International Terminal site.

Despite media censorship across the UAE (especially in relation to government criticism), a handful of large organisations have published opposition to the inhumane treatment of migrant workers. In 2003, Human Rights Watch criticised the government for ‘inaction in addressing the discrimination against Asian workers.’[11] Subsequently, in 2004 the BBC condemned the UAE’s lack of freedom of the press surrounding workers’ challenges, reporting, “The names of the construction companies concerned are not published in the newspapers for fear of offending the often powerful individuals who own them,” thereby revealing corruption in the regime.[12] In 2005, an official report confirmed that labourers faced delayed payment of wages, premature termination of services and excessive working hours, amongst numerous other illegalities.[13] Sorrowfully, the report also testified to 109 Indian blue-collar workers committing suicide in the UAE in 2006.[14] Also in 2006, a NRP inquisition found that workers are constantly cheated by contractors who ‘hold back their salaries to repay loans,’ as most are indebted to recruitment agencies.[15] Other sources also state that upon arrival, migrant workers are often forced to sign a new contract, in a foreign tongue, that pays them less than originally agreed. Nonetheless, this is illegal. In short, these reports reveal that many migrant workers are reduced to a life of enforced servitude in the UAE.

Although there has been minor coverage of the issues, the circulation of the information and subsequent action has been negligible. Aside from labour unions becoming legalised[16] and construction workers being allowed a ‘midday break’ in summer[17] (which provides little refuge from the sweltering Ramadan fast[18]), change has been minimal.

Despite being elected to the UN council, the UAE government has not signed most international human-rights and labour-rights treaties, including the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Recently, the government denied any kind of labour injustices, claiming accusations were ‘misguided.’[19] I hope that I have conveyed the drastic falsehood of this propaganda. I believe that it is this attitude of denial that has severely debilitated the lives of millions of workers, and will continue to do so in the future, unless the UAE government seriously re-evaluates their perception of the price of life versus the price of labour.

Last February, my friend witnessed a crane crush one worker and injure three others. Ambulances took 20 minutes to arrive at the scene. The contracting company Hashim refused to comment.

Screams drowned out sirens that morning.[20]



[2] All 60 of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their employers routinely withheld their wages. Withholding one-and-a-half or two months’ wages as “security” to prevent workers from “running away” to a better job appears to be accepted as a “custom” among construction companies in the UAE.42

[3] Abdur Rashid, worker


[5] Abdur Rashid: “We don’t even have enough space to keep our belongings.”

[6] A.V. Abdul Wahab, a cleaning worker who used to live in a labour camp in Musaffah

[7] Abdur Rashid

[8] Saiful Islam, freelance driver, mason and electrician fromBangladesh who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1999 

[9] Currently the tallest building in the world

[10] S. Kumar, an Indian worker who had worked with the company for 11yrs

[11] [217]

[12] [219]

[13] The Indian consulate in Dubai submitted a report to the Government of India detailing labour problems faced by Indian expatriates in the emirate

[14] [221]

[15] [215]

[16] End of March 2006, UAE labour minister Ali al-Kaabi said, “Labourers will be allowed to form unions.”

[17] Introduced 2008

[18] Muslims go without food and water from sunrise to sunset during 30 varying days of the year

[19] HRW accusations: [225] 

[20] Feb 24th, 2019: c.7am. Aldar development, Al Raha Beach, Yas Bay. 1 casualty = blue collar worker from Asia. Eyewitness account says ambulance took 15mins to arrive, then took a further 5mins as it went in the wrong entrance. Site closed afterwards for police investigation.