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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dubai Strike

According to BBC News:
A strike at the site of the Burj Dubai - expected to be the world's tallest building - has entered its second day...2,500 labourers at the Dubai site have walked out in a row over pay and working conditions, which sparked a night of violence two days ago...The workers are employed by Dubai-based firm Al Naboodah Laing O'Rourke.
Ironically, Al Naboodah (one half of the joint venture) "believes caring is the most important tradition," according to their recent rebranding strategy (PDF link). The hollowness of such a statement is apparent in the low wages and general lack of reasonable care given to their employees.

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Burj Dubai many, many years from now

The BBC continues:
...The builders...are demanding better wages, overtime pay, improved medical care and better treatment from their foremen...Pay for the workers ranges from US$7.60 per day for a skilled carpenter, with labourers getting $4 per day...a riot by the disgruntled workers - who smashed cars, offices and construction vehicles - caused an estimated $1m of damage...The labourers have since returned to the construction site, but have refused to pick up their tools, halting work at building surrounding the Burj Dubai.
An AKI article states that 36 floors of its unspecified total number (to keep the overall height a secret) have been built. As can be seen comparing the highly idealized rendering above to the February aerial shot below, it will be a long time not only before the Burj Dubai is complete (anticipated to be 2008) but before its context isn't one big construction site itself. Early visitors to Armani's hotel when it opens in this Wizard of Oz-like tower will be staying in the middle of a construction zone.

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Burj Dubai in foreground; image found here

Finally, the BBC concludes:
Prestigious projects, like the recent $ 4.1bn airport expansion in Dubai, rely mainly on workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. These workers are cheap, usually earning less than $300 a month."
I have to admit that stuff like this makes me so angry it's hard to facilitate a response. The use and abuse of poorer people in poorer countries by places like Dubai and the United States is just another part of the situation where a few rich people own and get most of the pie. Personally, I'm glad to see the laborers and other construction workers taking things into their own hands and standing up for fair wages and the like...at least in terms of striking, not rioting. Let's hope there's a good outcome to all this effort, whatever and whenever that is.

23 comments:

  1. Wow. What a tall bldg it will be if it ever gets completed.

    :) interesting blog. great pictures.

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  2. Great post. Thank you.

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  3. Any wagers on the final height of the building? I'm going to say over 2000'. Dubai has a reputation for building over-sized structures; their harbor is the only man-made structure visible from orbit, I understand.

    Regarding the riot, labor and unfair wages...I'm not so opposed to the riot thing. Their poor employment practices have now cost the company over $1M plus lost time. With unions getting broken in the States like so many fortune cookies, maybe a little outrage isn't such a bad thing.

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  4. Sad to say, but most of the more memorable monuments of humanity, through the ages, have been built by slavery.

    I'm not sure this megalomaniac structure would be so profitable to its builders without the cheap labor they're getting over there. They are already trying to sell condos, but will anybody on earth be rich enough to buy one !?

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  5. Clifford, you make a great point.

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  6. @clifford

    I think that's what Dubai is banking on, being the collection point of many billionaires. The rich people's playground, so to speak.

    There are enough rich people in the world (even here in Omaha we have 3 billionairs), so it's just a matter of convincing them that they should invest in a second (or even third) house. That's what the Burj Dubai is trying to do.

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  7. james - Over 2000' is a safe guess, though I hear there's plans for one even taller, approximately .5 mile tall. Maybe some day we'll reach the mile high height that FLLW proposed years ago, finally completing the absurdity of building taller and taller and taller. I do believe that the Great Wall of China is also visible from space, though. In some ways I'm surprised there aren't more structures visible from that far away.

    clifford - I definitely understand that the Pyramids and other structures couldn't have happened without a strict social hierarchy -- from kings down to slaves -- but that doesn't mean it applies (or should apply) to contemporary societies. I don't know much about UAE's political structure, but as democracy spreads around the world one would think that exploitation of lower classes would lessen. Of course that still happens in the US, but unions and other organizations (try to) help combat it. Perhaps this is the first attempt at a similar thing in that country. But what separates this the most from the ancient Egyptians, for example, is the willingness of foreigners (in this case people from India and other nearby countries) to work these low wages. Why does that happen? Because their cost of living is that much lower? Because they have been thrust into a pseudo-first-world structure that replaces Capital/Consumerism with whatever came before? Because they are dependent upon people beyond their borders to obtain $$? Somebody out there probably has a better idea than me (I admit ignorance on these issues I touch upon).

    bryan - I see, like you, that there will be plenty of people who can afford and will buy into this building. Not only because of the abnormally large number of billionaires and millionaires, but because of credit. Sure, they'll still have to afford the down-payment, but the published oh-my-that's-a-lot-of-money price that we'll read about is spread out over a pretty long period of time, just like everything else.

    To me, this building and the rest of Dubai is evident of a prediliction for luxury and leisure, among other consumer pushes. It of course appeals to globetrotting rich people, but it also raises the bar for people around the world to live beyond their means. And it won't last as the oil money dries up, along with the bank accounts of the super-rich. Maybe soon there'll be a worldwide reaction to all this and frugal will be the next black.

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  8. I'm not trying to excuse this exploitation, and of course things like that shouldn't happen nowadays ! But they do... Somehow some developpers still have this mentality that labor is disposable, and that if an "employee" doesn't like being paid 5$ a day, some other guys are lining up to replace him.

    How someone can work for such low wages is beyond me, and hopefully India and China's fast-growing development will help reduce this kind of abnormal social situation.

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  9. In an interesting visit to Dubai only a few weeks ago, i saw the building you mention.. Suprisingly, residential and commercial towers in Dubai get build in extremely fast speeds. Generally 2 years is enough for a 40-50 storey tower. Now imagine a tower like the Burj and the pressures to build it even faster and you get the point. (its thought to be around the 1km height)
    I was also suprised by the amoung of houses and flats that have already been sold. Some towers dont even start unless they have sold everything, and most people just sell in a few years, or before the tower even have been finished and get a 100% profit.
    Dubai to me seems like a place that wont crash. Their oil is running out in 2020 or so they say, but their tourism was the least affected by the tsunami in the whole region, and keeps getting stronger.
    Furthermore they are going to try and get the 2020 Olympics and have projects such as Media city, Financial City, Internet city, which they plan to use as a base for alot of the huge companies...
    Unfortunately when you have plans this big.. labour suffers... some people suffer.. e.t.c.
    Which is a similar case with war, invasion, political changes... e.t.c.. :(

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  10. I had heard the Great Wall wasn't visible from space, but the harbor in Dubai was...turns out a lot of things are visible with binoculars...but unaided, it seems the only thing you can really see are pyramids...

    here's an url for some indications of what you can see from space...(sorry, not sure how to create a link)

    http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/workinginspace/great_wall.html

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  11. If the Great Wall is visible from space, then so is every four lane+ highway.

    The most noteworthy highways to try and spot from space: KATY in Dallas, Spaghetti Juction in Atlanta, or 405/110 junction in LA.

    I don't think individual buildings would be easy to spot once you reach the great black beyond.

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  12. Great blog and great post.

    ->Clifford

    What you said about 'how people can work for such small wages' made me smile. It reminded me of how relative 'such small wages' are. Architects complain all the time about not being paid what they are worth. People will do just about anything to survive, and mounting a huge revolt on par with the one occuring in UAE is practically unheard of in the US these day. US workers (like workers all over the world) get collectively screwed each and every day. I think it's just how workers get treated. Not saying it's okay, just kind of how it is now and how it has been throughout history. Organizing helps some, but I guess organizing is tough when you've got hungry mouths to feed.

    I hope their uprising gets them what they want rather than a police led retaliation. You just never know when the new Tienemen is lurking around the corner.

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  13. What is also interesting it the effect that Dubai's construction industry is having on the international recruitment of experienced construction managers- construction in the Caribbean (of mostly tourism facilities such as resorts, hotels etc. and supporting infrastructure) is suffering from an exodus of these valuable managers (without which the Dubai buildings would be so much useless concrete) and the cause of the exodus? The world's highest salary and benefits packages (often tax-free)! Not everyone in Dubai is suffering from low wages and bad living conditions- the shot-callers are in there for $150,000 p.a. or more. Which self-respecting (and capable) construction manager would want to work in the Caribbean for only half that...

    The result? Construction costs are under pressure as companies re-negotiate their remuneration packages with their key staff, and pass the costs onto the developers (and ultimately consumers)!

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  14. interesting..

    as a UAE national, I was really shocked when I first heard about this. This hasn't made the news (over here) yet and I doubt it ever would - which is so typical of my country since they tend to hide a lot of negative things which go on in my country. My heart goes out to all the laborers here, their living conditions are extremely bad and their salaries are so low; keeping in mind that most of them send money back to their homelands to support their families.. I doubt they make enough money to support themselves. I'm with the strike, I hope it goes on until things change.

    I wish I could say more but Im really angry and upset right now.
    Shame on whoever is in charge of this.

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  15. This is an email from one of friends who works for Laing O Rourke. It explains the situation from the LOR's side. Just to show the other side of the story.

    Hi everybody,
    Newspapers & reports are biased. This is evident from the exact location of site has been mentioned wrong in reports. I was on site when things happened. At Laing O'Rourke we have best card punching system with eye scan identification on site. LOR employs legal labor on site with best compensation in industry. Also LOR maintains the best labour camps with all medical facilities. LOR is the only company in Gulf which pays its labourers on time. After the incident the labourers supported the facilities of LOR to labour commissioner.

    As we employ a lot of labour force, in the evening time when work is over labourers rush to their buses, everyone of them wants to board the first bus. This places their own safety at risk due to stampede. LOR committed to safety of its employees made arrangements so that workers can come to buses without rushing in safe manner. (Imagine 3000 workers force). Some trouble makers who were identified by police had been trying to mess things and went on rampage. To break computers and cars is an criminal riot act. It is not a representation of rights.

    Things are normal on site as usual now. It is true that in Gulf lot of exploitation happens to workers from Asian countries, but Laing O'Rourke with its presence across the globe is always committed to stand by its safety & quality policies. It is a company of first choice.

    I am not saying it because I work in Laing O'Rourke, but as one of few architects who work with contracting firms - I am more aware of workers conditions. Of course these cannot be compared to luxuries enjoyed by white collar jobs of us Architects but one fact is true. Asian workers are best paid with safe & healthy environment with Laing O'Rourke. Our low AFR is much below industry standard.

    Big projects are always under media eyes, things are blown out of proportions with wrong reporting. I am also an Asian worker in Gulf and I am very much concerned about Asian workers as I am with them always. I am not a non concerned consultant just to speak, forward and spread what I don't know. I tell you the truth.

    If you remember on this forum only, I raised once the issue of low salaries for Architects in Gulf. People from Asian countries have to accept a fact - that with dignity of labour all humans are equal. So at lower level income is better compared to Asian countries and at higher level it is reversed. Many of you in Australia or US may not write on this forum that for your expenses, small restaurant jobs were undertaken but it happens.

    THINK AGAIN

    (Name WIthheld)


    Sr. Architect,
    Laing O'Rourke, Burj Dubai Development Site.

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  16. @ the Laing O'Rourke email.

    The truth?
    The truth is that all these labourers are paid anything from 100$ to 150$ monthly depending on which sub contractor they are under.

    The truth is that their overtime wages is a ridiculous 1 Dhs per hour.

    And these labourers are stacked up in cabins (sometimes upto 20 people in a room meant for 4) without proper amenities.

    I am not speaking on behalf of media reports - but there are a quiet a few workers I personally know and spoken to. Believe me, they will not be happy to hear about your inference. If LOR says otherwise let the media take photos of the labour camp and the speak to the labourers.

    Ofcourse the media is 'biased' as you said. When around 60 workers died in the airport construction site, the media was 'allowed' to report only four.(http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C12DA17D-2948-45D5-A95C-B06883FFD6BD.htm)

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  17. the media is not biased but restricted,check todays reports,people are exploited very much,i am also working in construction company,people comes here paying heavy amount like 1500 $ and gets these salaries,many are promised much and paid half,they start working from 6 to 6 and starts from labour camp from 5.00 and reaches back by 8.00.all should understand they are also human beings and some companies didnt paid salaries of even 5 months and more.labour camps 8 to 12 people stay in a room.is this civilized

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  18. @ laing o rouke,how many people died in dubai airprt site and how many were uncounted,2 years back...thats a laing o rouke site

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  19. Please do not try and justify the poor labor conditions employed in Dubai, even if your company may be the least horrible! The amount of money that is made on the backs of these laborers is ridiculous. We should remember that while Dubai is based on a capitalist economy, it is not a democracy, so I would be careful to urge riots, these workers do not have any rights.
    In an interview, Foucault was asked if architects had any power, and basically his answer was "no", except when it came to workers' housing. Hmmm....

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  20. I think to understand how much they are paid you have to understand how much money $300/month is to them. If someone offered you $10K per month to work as a laborer, would you take it? I would! But what if the person paying you is from a country that is so rich, that $10K is like the $300/month? Should they be paying us $100K per month then just because they can afford it? They are paying GREAT money for the locations these workers are coming from. As far as providing medical, and proper safety concerns I agree, they should have those.

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  21. Very interesting article.
    I have not known many facts about Dubai property. I am interested in an idea of investing money exactly in this sphere. I think Dubai has a big potential.

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  22. I was working in Dubai and thankfully back in India but have friends who are still in the Construction Industry. My friends say that all illegal immigrants have been deported all strikes have been made unlawful. The problems have only aggravated as the construction firms are facing a huge labour shortage.

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  23. This is an interesting and important subject and I thank the author for bringing it to our attention. I do, however, take issue with one sentence in this article:

    "The use and abuse of poorer people in poorer countries by places like Dubai and the United States is just another part of the situation where a few rich people own and get most of the pie."

    I am guessing the author has not worked in the American construction trade. I am an American architect and the construction force here is almost entirely unionized and fairly compensated. There are rare unfair exceptions, but for the most part this type of worker abuse doesn't happen in the US. In fact (and sadly) the typical contractor here earns more than the average architect. Again, my hat is off to the author for bringing this to our attention, but please don't lump the US in with Dubai. Thank you.

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