Fields of Gold: Life in Dubai’s Secretive Labor Camps

While in Dubai, Tupa spends time in various locations and experiences the full range of living conditions for the region’s migrant workers – both male and female.  Her story sheds light on what everyday life is like  in Dubai’s infamous labor camps and other places not shown on any map.   


So much has been written on migrant labor in Dubai specifically and the Gulf states in general that you would think that you could get a pretty decent snapshot of what living conditions are like for most migrant workers in the region.  Yet for all the newspaper pieces, academic articles, human rights reports, and books on the topic that have been put out there in recent years – almost all of which have been markedly critical of how migrants are treated – few actually offer any details of what conditions are like inside one of the Gulf’s notorious labor camps. The everyday lives and experiences of migrant workers – including their own voices and perspectives – are often noticeably absent.   It is more than a little disconcerting to realize that these labor camps, which surround cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi and wend through their industrial areas like infected arteries, can exist in such relative silence and obscurity, especially given the sheer size of many camps, which in the UAE can reach more than several hundred thousand workers.  For all the attention given to migrant labor abuses in the Gulf, migrant labor camps surround cities like Dubai in an eerie, cryptic silence. 


Much of that silence can be attributed to careful planning and orchestration on the part of the UAE government, which goes to great lengths to keep prying eyes out of its labor camps while suppressing the voices of those within.  In Dubai, the largest camps are located in the desert far outside the city center. Sonapur – which sardonically means ‘City of Gold’ in Hindi – is Dubai’s largest labor camp and houses an estimated 150,000 workers (though nobody knows the exact numbers and estimates vary widely). While located more than an hour outside of town, one would never know it because, like all labor camps, Sonapur is not shown on most maps of Dubai.  The long, lonely road that provides the only access to camp is not serviced by taxis, buses, or public transportation of any kind.  Journalists are not allowed in Sonapur and photographs of the camp are strictly forbidden.  There is a strong security presence, including a checkpoint that sits on the road well before the camp itself.  When combined with the sweltering heat and harsh, almost unearthly conditions of the surrounding desert, it is all that is needed to effectively discourage unauthorized and/or unwelcome visitors.  Of course, Dubai’s leaders know this; they are world leaders in the use and manipulation of space for the combined purposes of urban planning, social segregation, and myth making.  And much like the Bantustans and townships of South Africa’s old Apartheid regime, Sonapur and the other migrant labor camps of Dubai reflect an environment – part natural and part man-made – that offers a broad canvas to work on. 


Places like Sonapur are not only effective at keeping journalists and other prying eyes out, but they are equally adept at keeping migrant workers in.  Workers are shuttled to their job sites in antiquated, company buses, leaving early in the morning to get to their jobs by 6 a.m., only to return late at night, sometimes after working 18 hour days.  As a result, most have no idea what Dubai even looks like beyond the confines of their labor camp and job site, and what they manage to see out of the filthy, barred windows of their stifling buses.  The long, exhausting hours, lack of public transport, and desert environment prevent most individuals from even considering leaving the confines of their labor camp during off hours or their single day off (which is officially Friday).  But it is also the unwritten yet ever present codes of conduct in the UAE that keep workers confined to camp when they are not actually working, most of which revolve around nationality and an intense social circumscription of space.  If you are not an obvious Emirati citizen or Western ex-pat or tourist, most of Dubai is simply off limits to you, a social geography that is enforced in a wide variety of ways, from the affronted stares of shopkeepers and people on the street to being detained, harassed, and possibly arrested by the police.  Emirati have a deep-seated fear of being overwhelmed by foreigners and foreign influence.  Andrew Gardner, an anthropologist who has written extensively on migrant labor in the Gulf region, has noted how the region’s labor camps are the result of underlying socio-spatial practices designed to accommodate yet contain the inherent pollution of “foreign matter.”  Subsequently, there is something ghostly and wraithlike about migrant labor in Dubai; they are a silent, unseen, yet potentially dangerous presence.     


       On very rare occasions, UAE officials succumb to the pressure from international labor activists and human rights groups and offer a peek into what life is like in one of its labor camps.  However, these visits are highly orchestrated affairs and almost always to one of a handful of model camps built for just such a purpose. In the UAE, the most famous model camp is located on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island – or “Island of Happiness.” It houses construction workers who, in keeping with the UAE’s fascination with island sculpting, are helping to turn a once uninhabited island just off the coast into a massive, mixed-use commercial, residential, and tourist complex.  The project, which is scheduled for completion in 2020, is intended to transform Saadiyat Island into Abu Dhabi’s premier cultural hub and a major center of higher education and academic research.  The low-lying island is already home to a string of performing arts centers and world-class museums (including the national museum of the UAE, and branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim), as well as New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), a sprawling Club Med-like branch of NYU that aspires to nothing short of being “counted among the world’s great research universities” and, according to the president of NYU, a beacon of light that presents “an opportunity to transform the university and the world.”  Given such an ambitious, high profile project, UAE officials – with a little pressure from their long list of ultra-chic, prestigious partners – have striven since the start to demonstrate that the army of migrant workers who actually build their fantastical island are treated fairly. As a result, they built a model labor camp quite unlike any other, complete with open green spaces, a modern cafeteria, manicured cricket grounds, a chess center, pool tables, and a multilingual library, among other things.  In short, they built a camp that was the polar opposite of every other labor camp in the UAE.  Living conditions at the camp were hyped in a series of milquetoast propaganda pieces dressed up to look like investigative journalism in Abu Dhabi’s The National, a notoriously biased, government-owned newspaper known more for its mass of high level resignations over government interference then for its journalistic integrity.  According to these articles and the supposedly comprehensive investigations conducted by their authors, the only complaint to be found among workers on Saadiyat Island had was the poor taste of food. 


       But it did not take long for the real story to emerge as the idealistic image of the Saadiyat Accommodation Village – which is its official name – was undermined by a report from Human Rights Watch who, despite being invited by UAE officials to examine conditions themselves during carefully planned and choreographed visits, highlighted numerous problems with workers, including isolation, low wages, lack of adequate health care, and a slew of familiar labor practices that effectively reproduced the indentured servitude found in most other labor camps in the UAE. Rather than implement any of their recommendations, UAE officials responded by scrapping a draft labor law that had been in the works for some time.  Workers went on a prolonged strike as the entire debacle hit the pages of the New York Times.  In support of the striking workers, a coalition of international artists refused to show their work in the island’s Louvre or Guggenheim museums.  NYU in particular was left scrambling, caught between a $50 million dollar donation to their university from the UAE, and the need to uphold the statement of labor values that was supposed to guarantee the fair treatment of the project’s workers working on the project.  The executive director of campus operations for NYUAD, seemingly oblivious to the reality of the situation of migrant labor in the Gulf region, told workers at one awards ceremony that: “Your children are benefiting from the work that you do on this project.  There is no reason that those children, as they get educated in your country, that they can’t apply to go to school here.  And just think about how exciting it would be for them to attend a school that you built.”   In a subsequent interview, she then admitted that NYU really had no idea how construction workers were paid or treated and that “…we have to trust that what they’re coming up with are the reasonable wages on their end.”  Far from being a university that was about to transform the world, NYU Abu Dhabi was in fact contributing to – and benefiting from – a long-standing cycle of transnational labor, global poverty, and structural inequality that the UAE had long been part of. 


   Despite all attempts to bury descriptions of actual living conditions in migrant labor camps in Dubai, the UAE, and the Gulf region in general, detailsinevitably leak out.  What emerges is a varied but almost universally bleak picture. Camps range from impromptu shantytowns made up of little more than cardboard shacks and sheets of scrap metal to former single family homes located in what have now become squalid industrial areas – the homes themselves converted by slumlords to squeeze in as many laborers as possible.  But the most ubiquitous labor camps are the so-called mega-camps, which are stuck far out in the desert and consist of row upon row of bunker-like, concrete monoliths designed for the explicit purpose of storing large numbers of imported humans. Camps are so crowded that personal space is essentially non-existent; facilities are shared and the daily routine entails standing in line for hours in order to use filthy showers and toilets. Workers must somehow find time to cook for themselves and wash their own laundry – the former on grease blackened hot plates in their rooms or in tiny kitchen cubicles shared by hundreds of others, and the latter in shower stalls or by using buckets of water.  Air conditioning is a luxury that is simply non-existent, which means that most rooms are stifling, suffocating hot boxes. And unlike the model camp at Saadiyat Island, there are no manicured cricket fields, welcoming green spaces, or even trees.  Instead, there is the desert space, where even the slightest wind whips up clouds of dust that cover everything with a fine layer of reddish brown dust. 


In the UAE, the unhygienic conditions found in most labor camps – including open trash bins and piles of garbage infested with rats, standing puddles of raw sewage, and drinking water that has not been properly desalinated – is a breeding ground for disease.  In 2008, Dubai’s own Permanent Committee for Labor Affairs found that 75 percent of camps were below government standards for hygienic conditions and 70 percent of worker accommodations violated hygiene and safety rules.  Unfortunately, paying the minimal fine (about $545 US dollars for the third violation) is a much cheaper option for companies that own the camps than doing something about it.  For both employers and the government, addressing public health risks associated with such conditions continues to be a non-priority. 


Workers themselves have little time or inclination to complain or rise up in protest.  Those who do risk arrest and cancellation of their visas, and they would almost certainly find themselves on the next plane home before realizing what hit them.  And once home, they would have the additional burden of dealing with a much larger debt than what they started with (due to the need to pay back recruitment fees as well as any additional expenses piled on by their former employers).  Most do not protest their situation because they are acutely aware of the overwhelming pressures back home (which drove them to places like Dubai in the first place) and their status as disposable bodies who are easily replaced by the next wave of migrant laborers on the horizon. 


Yet perhaps the biggest mystery is the plight of women and their experiences as migrant workers.  In particular, it is difficult if not impossible to find any accounts of what conditions are like in female labor camps.  To be sure, residents of such camps are also a small minority when compared to the situation of most women, who as domestic laborers typically live with their host families.  And female labor camps are also a small minority of labor camps in general, since most are built to house the region’s vast army of male migrants.  But female labor camps do in fact exist in the Gulf, the UAE, and Dubai in particular, and much more attention needs to be paid to the women who live in them.