Abu Dhabi: about migrant Worker exploitation, abuse, and inequality, and NYU AD

Thirty years ago Abu Dhabi was a ‘dust bowl’. Now there is a plethora of fantastic skyscrapers, physical infrastructure and the illusion of civilisation. However, the built environment does not embody the essence of civilisation. The cornerstones and cement of a civilised society is civilised people. Civilised people are the product of political, legal, academic, social, and cultural institutions. In a civilised society these institutions have evolved over hundreds or even thousands of years. In Abu Dhabi these institutions have not evolved. Thus, to be blunt Abu Dhabi is not a civilised country and collectively the Abu Dhabi Arabs are not civilised.

Why then are people surprised that in Abu Dhabi civilised entities such as equality, the rule of law, free speech , freedom, and democracy are not respected? If you really think about it – it is surprising that Abu Dhabi has any semblance to a civilised society at all. For example, in countries such as the UK and the United States equality and rights for women, black people, and workers did not appear overnight – it was a long hard slog, over many years, to even get the cosmetic appearance of equality in these areas.

Did I hear someone say ‘what! – the Arabs are not civilised’? Well, is cutting off limbs, beheading people, and stoning people to death civilised? Is imprisoning women rape victims civilised? Is imprisoning people, or deporting people for saying something you disagree with civilised?

Abu Dhabi in its present form is the product of an accident of geology and economics. The Arabs have oil, a scarce commodity, that has gifted them great wealth. Here is where the plot thickens. The forces of capitalism have taken the opportunity to take advantage of inadequate governance to exacerbate the social problems of inequality. The big brands of western countries have embraced the inequality because it is great for their bottom line – their profitability. Western governments have turned a blind eye to the inequality and human rights issues in the interest of selling weapons, and in the interest of favourable trading relations. In other words the whole wide World has been serenading the Arabs with sycophantic melodies because it wants their oil and it wants their money. It is hard to incentivise change when one wants something off the entity one is trying to change.

Will changing the labour laws in Abu Dhabi really reduce inequality? Well, it has not worked so far. Laws are only effective if they are enforced. For example, it is supposedly illegal to confiscate migrant workers‘passports – but passports are routinely and invariably confiscated.  I’ve arrived at the conclusion that enforcing labour laws, protecting the rights of, and promoting the welfare of migrant workers is not a priority of the authorities in Abu Dhabi.  The Abu Dhabi authorities are more concerned with cyber crime, Face Book comments, and ‘discouraging’ free speech and criticism.

I sympathise with the plight of the migrant workers on Saadiyat Island, and I don’t see how anybody can seriously deny that they are the recipients of widespread exploitation and abuse. However, exploitation and abuse of migrant workers is widespread across all business sectors in Abu Dhabi. For example, I know personally of migrant retail workers who work at the Al Wahda Mall hypermarket in Abu Dhabi whose contracts stipulate that they should work 10 hours a day for 60 hours a week with one days rest each week. However, the migrant workers are forced to work 12/13 hours a day with a rest of a few hours in the middle of the split shift – with no rest day. Thus they are on the go from 6am to 11:30 pm and confined to their quarters in their rest break. Thus they must be actually working in access of 90 Hours a week. Nobody cares about these workers – nobody feels for them – nobody feels uncomfortable about their plight.

In my example of the migrant retail workers at the Al Wahda mall hypermarket what I found disturbing was that I realised nobody cared about them. Not the management or company they worked for – not the customers of the hypermarket, not the Abu Dhabi authorities and probably not even the authorities in their origin countries. The women retail workers would just spend their life away sleeping – working – eating – sleeping – working – eating everyday with no relaxation time or personal life for themselves – and nobody cared a damn about them.

As for the merits of NYU Abu Dhabi – well it is another example of a western institution courting the Arabs for their money. On the other hand I’m convinced that educational institutions will be a contributing factor in transforming Abu Dhabi into a more civilised society.

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