Gulf Economy: Empire Built On Slave Labour
behind the splendour and glitz composed of the speculative money spinning businesses, conspicuous consumption, prestige construction sites and luxury hotels of Gulf countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the emergence of Dubai as a bubble city lay the unprecedented super exploitation of millions of migrant workers from Asia. The appalling social misery arising from it has recently led to a series of sudden strikes by construction workers in UAE and Bahrain. Among them the most significant ones were: the historic strike by the 40000 workers from the Dubai based construction company Arabtec’s 26 labour camps in UAE, labour unrest in the Jebel Ali Free Zone led by 2000 workers belonging to the construction giant Pauling Middle East and the strike by workers of dairy firm Almarai in Bahrain. Here it should be noted about 700000 construction workers are toiling in the free zones alone.Ever since the discovery of oil in West Asia in the early twentieth century, almost all the Gulf countries have been relying on cheap migrant workers especially from the rest of Asia. However this dependency is in its extreme in the UAE, where there are 2.7 million foreign workers registered with the Ministry of Labour. The total number of the expatriate labour force is much higher as many, such as domestic workers, drivers and those working in the free-zones do not come under the Ministry of Labour. Domestic workers whose estimated figure comes to 600000 are employed in elite and wealthy households. There are also many working without legal status on visit visas. In 2006, the ministry issued 835,000 work permits, which number is expected to rise to 1.2 million in 2007. In all, migrant workers constitute 85 percent of the total population and 90 percent of the workforce in the private sector, predominantly construction, hospitality and domestic service. Out of the total population of 5.3million, only 800,000 people are UAE citizens.Slave labour sponsorship by Indian StateAs already noted, a major chunk of Gulf migrants are from India. Of the total contribution of Rs.104000 crores per year, sent by non-resident Indians, the lion’s share comes from the Gulf. For instance, the Keralites working in West Asia alone contribute Rs. 30000 crores annually. Only 5% of this money is reportedly used for any productive purposes. The rest is used for ballooning the speculative and consumption sectors that lacks any forward or backward linkages with the country’s productive and employment generating spheres. Meanwhile, the Indian Embassy and the Ministry of Non- Resident Indians are acting as political pimps in the export of slave labour to the Gulf.This became evident in the context of the recent initiatives on the part of Kuwait and UAE authorities to eliminate anarchy and bring stability to the labour market in their economies especially in the context of the simmering discontent among migrant workers. For instance, Kuwait and UAE authorities have urged migrant workers and their employers to sign contracts that specify their terms of employment. However, intervening in this arrangement, the government of India is trying to reduce wages of migrant workers further in alliance with recruiting agencies.This has become more noticeable in the case of the export of domestic workers. Taking stock of the situation, the Philippine government has entered into an agreement with recruiting agencies stipulating that their domestic workers should be given 120 Dinars a month. Following this and in the guise of ensuring Gulf migrant domestic labour market for Indians, the government of India through its embassy has come forward with a proposal that the Indian women workers there need only 75 Dinars (Rs.9750) a month. In view of the huge money needed for visa and other payments to middlemen and taking into account the fact that often the domestic workers are paid much less than that in the contract, this will make the real earnings of a migrant worker much less than that of a casual worker in the unorganised sector in India. This approach of the Indian rulers has led to a cut throat competition among the various Asian countries for Gulf domestic labour market thereby reducing the wages of domestic female workers still further.Of course, there are a number of social and psychological aspects associated with the workers who are forced to sell themselves at the cheapest wage under extremely vulnerable working conditions in the Gulf. These immigrant workers, the majority of whom are from rural areas in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, on account of neo-colonisation in the post second world war period and imperialist globalisation in the post cold war period that devastated their agriculture, traditional industries and livelihood, are forced to live for years without their families in labour camps. Labour contracts under which they work without any citizenship or democratic rights are nothing but slavery in the neo-colonial form. The immigration sponsorship laws that prevail in Gulf countries provide enormous powers to sponsors and employers over the lives of workers. Various forms of abuses such as non-payment of wages, extended working hours without overtime rates of pay, unsafe working conditions resulting in deaths and injuries, withholding of passports and travel documents, are widespread. Condition in Labour CampsThe condition prevailing in labour camps is pathetic. The workers who work six days a week at guarded sites are ferried every day to work in company buses. Set far apart from the glittering lavishness of Dubai and other cities these labour camps with almost no public transport to them often stretch for miles in the desert sand. Probably, the most notorious among these camps is Sonapur, which is half an hour away from Dubai housing more than 50,000 workers. The buildings here resemble prison camps. Amenities in these camps are paltry with only communal bathrooms and kitchens. Visitors are often prohibited. All day and all night, company buses ferry the workers to and from their place of work where three shifts may be the norm. An average construction worker gets only 600 dirhams (Rs.8000) per month. But the recent depreciation of the dollar to which the dirham is linked has eroded 25-30 percent of the real earnings of workers. At the same time, rising cost of living and sky-rocketing prices of essential items have made it difficult for the workers to repatriate anything worth while to their homes abroad. No doubt, the situation confronting the workers, is the outcome of an international division of labour whose co-sponsors are the feudal sheiks and Asian country governments under the aegis of imperialism led by USA. The profits derived from this unparalleled super-exploitation go to the feudal families and their cohorts in diverse forms leading to ever-worsening pauperisation and destitution of migrant workers.The “petrodollar” empire that has come up in the Gulf especially in UAE dates back to the discovery of oil in the 1950s. In 1950, the place, which is now known as UAE, was inhabited by just 100000 people subsisting on fishing and dates cultivation. With the patronage and sponsorship from British and American petroleum magnates, the tribal rulers began to import large-scale labour from India and Pakistan that soon outnumbered UAE citizens. Along with this, a large land reclamation program was also embarked upon to create the present UAE including the bubble city Dubai. Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka, with an inexhaustible source of cheap labour, provided the necessary labour force needed for this transformation. In the specific case of Dubai, being a non-oil economy, it is trying to develop into an international tourist and trading hub solely depending on migrant slave labour. This is creating various constraints and contradictions as revealed through the recent cases of labour unrest there.To be precise, the emergence of Dubai and other Gulf cities as an international financial hub on the one hand and the unprecedented destitution of Asian migrant workers as is reflected in the labour camps on the other has led to a critical situation which cannot be settled through any customary window dressing. Instead of utilising this critical situation in favour of workers from their countries, comprador rulers in countries like India are engaged in alleviating imperialism’s crisis in this part of the world by shifting this burden to the shoulders of the working class again and again in collusion with their counterparts in the Gulf. Progressive and democratic sections should take serious note of this issue without any let up.