Thousands of construction workers walked out on strike in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last Saturday. The labourers, mainly from South Asia, were attacked by police as they protested for higher wages.
They responded by occupying a building and pelting police cars with stones. The state rounded up workers and deported them.
Strikes have now become commonplace in a country where unions are banned and the overwhelmingly migrant workforce faces repression and exploitation.
Oil dollars have made the UAE, a key US ally, a haven for the global rich, where huge glittering seven star hotels, indoor snow parks and mega building projects have sprouted from the sands.
Behind the UAE’s image as a model of the success of the “free market” lies an ugly system.
Issam Hambouz is a democracy activist from the UAE. He told Socialist Worker, “The UAE is made up of seven states connected through a federal union.
“Each state is ruled by a tribal family that owes their power to an alliance with the British Empire in the early 19th century.
“They control the internal affairs of their kingdom.
“All the emirates, Abu Dhabi in particular, jointly manipulate foreign affairs.”
These families have used oil wealth to fund prestigious projects. Some 89 percent of the UAE’s population are labourers, mainly drawn from across Asia, who build these projects.
The ruling families repress political dissent, with even relatively privileged citizens banned from forming political parties, associations or trade unions.
Hambouz said, “However, there are a number of individuals who are attempting to make a positive change through projects like the Human Rights Associations.
“Migrant workers are trying to form unofficial unions, but most of their attempts have been met with the deportation of ‘unwanted people’.”
The average monthly salary in the UAE is £1,340. The majority of construction workers take home £63 a month, of which £30 is deducted for food, and monthly deductions for their work visa.
They often find themselves deported at the end of their contracts without receiving their final pay cheque.
Asian labourers have been at the heart of the construction industry in the Gulf states since the 1970s. However, the
breakneck economic boom is giving rise to a new mood.
Thousands of workers have taken to the streets in a wave of unprecedented protests this year.
In March and August, workers marched through the glittering Sheikh Zayed street in Dubai in protest at a decision to deduct half their wages for meals. Their protest highlighted the growing anger in the shanty towns and slums on the fringes of the major cities.
Hambouz said, “In September a massive fire swept through the Jebali Ali camp for foreign labourers outside the capital. The fire destroyed the possessions of 1,500 labourers and sparked protests.”
Shortly after this, thousands of labourers struck against low wages. The strikers destroyed company buses and blocked the main roads.
Hambouz said, “After the riot, 180 labourers who worked on government projects were thrown out of the country without receiving pay due to them. The government said the workers came into the country illegally.
“In April, three labourers at a construction company died from various illnesses related to their substandard living conditions.
“Later that month 200 labourers from the Marhaba Marina company went on strike after they were not paid for four months.
“In June, one municipality banned buses ferrying workers from entering certain areas.
“The labourers were forced to walk long distances from their camps to construction sites. In one month two died and 82 were made sick by heat exhaustion.”
Earlier this year the government was forced to pass a law that prohibits working under the noon sun during July and August.
There are growing calls for change among UAE nationals. This summer, school teachers threatened to strike to demand higher wages.
Last month the UAE passed an amnesty law allowing workers who overstayed their visas the right to go home with their earnings.
Over 300,000 left, leaving the building sites empty and delaying prestigious construction projects such as the Burj Dubai – set to be the world’s tallest building.
The government has been unable to break the momentum of the struggle.
The strike last Saturday is the latest manifestation of the new mood of militancy.