Reuters has as one of its “pictures of the day” a photo of Sunil. Sunil is a 14 year-old working at a brick quarry in western India. He is paid two Indian rupees ($0.04) for each brick he carries out of the quarry. Each brick weighs about 40kg. He carries out about 100 bricks per day, making him daily wage of US$4. He has no safety gear, no protective clothing, likely has no health care if he is sick or injured, and probably has to work our and pay for his commute, residence, and food out of his own pocket. This type of labour sounds brutal — but these type of conditions are probably not unlike what many of our ancestors were doing between 100 and 200 years ago.
Sunit is one of tens of millions — maybe even hundreds of millions — of laborers in the subcontinent who would do significantly better if he came to Dubai (although that option is probably not open to him until he is 18 years old). He would likely be paid a minimum of US$200 a month (around AED600-800), and would probably live in a labour camp, be provided with meals, and be transported to his job, which would likely be in construction, but which could also be in mining, drivers, or other general labour. He would have one month of paid leave every year or two years in which he would fly back to see his family. And he would be provided with a uniform and safety gear — he wouldn’t be scrubbing around a quarry in shorts and sandals.
About half of the population in the UAE — and more than 70% of the population in Dubai — are from the subcontinent. These Indian, Pakistani, Nepali and Sri Lankan workers work in the Persian Gulf and send money to their families in their home country. You can easily meet South Asians in Dubai who have lived here a year, or two, or five, or even ten or more.
I see this as an opportunity for these workers. And while there are certainly issues — which are being addressed at various paces — overwhelmingly Dubai (and other states of the Persian Gulf) present an opportunity for these workers. But the situation of laborers in Dubai is generally reported in Western media as a scandal. Certainly there are real problems — delayed wage payments being one that was a real problem during the financial crisis — but Dubai, and the rest of the UAE, should not be judged by the labour standards of developed countries. There are already too many people trying to get into Dubai from South Asia as it is — were conditions much better, illegal immigration would be even worse problem.