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The house that slavery built

Written By: - Date published: 11:24 pm, January 6th, 2010 - 35 comments
Categories: workers' rights - Tags:

There’s no denying that the Burj Khalifa is impressive. Not all that much short of a kilometre high, it’s easily the highest building on Earth.

It loses some of the lustre, though, when you think about what it actually is. This building makes no economic sense, it was built on borrowed money by a country that couldn’t afford the debt (the construction company is part owned by the Emirate). Property values have plunged in Dubai and there is a huge amount of unused capacity built during the boom. Dubai’s other mega-projects, like the stupid ‘World’ artificial islands have been abandoned. Burj Khalifa simply had the luck to be far enough along when the bubble burst that it was still worth completing.

It makes no environmental sense, in a country that has no water, that has to extract it from the sea at a cost greater than refining petrol, this building has used obscene amounts of energy and water in its construction and will use evermore in the coming years.

And, perhaps worst, the workers who build Dubai’s ridiculous buildings are effectively slaves. Brought over from India and Bangladesh as indentured labourers (they have to repay their bosses for the cost of getting to Dubai) their passports are taken off them and wages are often far less than promised, when they are paid at all, while work and living conditions are far worse. These workers have no way to leave Dubai and are forced to work for unethical bosses in dangerous conditions while their home countries turn a blind eye. In 2005, 950 Indian nationals died in Dubai – then the consulate stopped counting. When workers try to stnad up against this treatment, the Dubai Police attack them. (read more about it here)

Maybe the likes of Farrar can’t wait to spend an obscene amount to stay in an environmental affront owned by a dictator and built by modern-day slaves, but that’s just not for me. I wouldn’t want to be part of that.

35 comments on “The house that slavery built”

  1. tsmithfield 1

    No argument from me on any of this. Absolute lunacy.

  2. jcuknz 2

    I wonder if it has been built to withstand attacks by 747’s … a wonderful target for AQ or Bin Laden otherwise. Many areas of the world have a long way to go to catch up with the conditions of work that we enjoy in New Zealand, your comments are a good reminder for us to be moderately happy with what we have here in New Zealand. We may have some problems to solve but nothing like what others have to contend with.

    • Noko 2.1

      That implies bin Laden is the leader of Al Qaeda, which would be difficult as they are little more than various groups all associating each other under one name. Similar to the way Bloods and Crips allegiances work in the Pacific, without or with very little contact to the original L.A. based gangs.

  3. Tim Ellis 3

    Unskilled Indian workers earn five times on UAE construction sites, in considerably better conditions than they do at home Marty. This is not slavery, it is the free movement of labour. Indian workers go to the UAE for the same reason that New Zealand workers go to Australia, to earn more.

    As for your figure of 950 Indian Nationals dying in Dubai in 2005, how many died on construction sites? It’s a terrifying headline number but the statistic is a nonsense, it includes all deaths from all sources. By your number there should be a national scandal that 40,000 people died in New Zealand last year.

    • RedLogix 3.1

      That’s right Timmy my boy… the house slaves are five times better off than the ones in the field. (We only beat them every fifth day.)

    • NickS 3.2


      Tim, if:
      a) passports are taken,
      b) wages are less than promised,
      c) wages are “held” and significant amounts deducted to deliver obviously sub-standard living conditions
      d) and wages further deducted for the costs of getting them over, leading to jack-all wages

      Is it then not easy to consider the situation a form of slavery? Particularly given that without their passports, the workers are effectively not free to leave Dubai.

      Also, way to fail basic statistics there Tim, rather surprising since your job is apparently maths heavy. i.e. you need to consider job position/social status and causes of death, age and total population. By making a direct comparison to NZ, without controlling for these factors, you’re lying, thus for both our sakes please sign up for a NCEA night-school statistics class.

      Though Marty should have perhaps provided some more links.

      So yeah, basically, the death toll is for Indian workers, and the two main causes of death are work accidents and suicides if memory serves me right, which shouldn’t be happening if work and living conditions weren’t so bad…

      But hey, they’re brown right, if someone’s making money why would you care about them?

      • Tim Ellis 3.2.1

        There were about 400,000 Indian workers in Dubai until the recession hit Nick. Human Rights Watch reported in 2005 that 61 workers died in site accidents, compared to official figures of 39. Even 61 is a far cry from 950. I’m sorry but 880 suicides is not correct. The Independent reports for the same year that there were 100 suicides. That leaves 790 from other causes.

        I am not condoning withholding wages or passports of migrant workers. There have been reports that this has taken place, but perhaps you can provide figures of how common this was. Yes it appears there have been some instances of it, but there are also instances in New Zealand of bad employers and shonky employment practices. That doesn’t mean that private sector employment should be outlawed.

        “sub standard living conditions” is relative. The living conditions of unskilled migrant workers in Dubai is considerably better than the living conditions in India.

        When migrant workers have a free choice to travel to Dubai, earn five times what they did at home, and live in similar or improved living conditions than at home, then that is not slavery.

      • Tim Ellis 3.2.2

        “But hey, they’re brown right, if someone’s making money why would you care about them?”

        Get off your racist high horse Nick. In case you didn’t know, Emiratis are brown too.

    • Clarke 3.3

      Is having your passport confiscated by your employer part of the “free movement of labour”, Tim?

  4. Mental Mickey 4

    Let me get this straight Tim Ellis – Are you actually trying to rationalise indentured labour?

    If you were, that would make you an extremist.

    • Gosman 4.1

      What exactly is wrong with indentured labour?

      The person entering into the contract does so freely and it is for a fixed term.

      Sure it is preferable that other methods of labour contract are preferable for the seller of labour but it is hardly slavery.

      • Draco T Bastard 4.1.1

        Actually, they entered freely into a job and conditions that didn’t materialise and then were forced to stay there. Being forced to stay there is slavery.

        • Armchair Critic

          Actually I doubt they entered into the contract freely.
          When the alternative to “a fifth of FA in your own country versus FA overseas” is “die”, then there is a significant measure of compulsion, which seems to pretty much dismiss the free choice part of gosman’s comment.
          And that’s irrespective of whether the conditions of the contract are either reasonable, or honoured by the employer.

          • Gosman

            So there are tens of thousands of people dying in India and Pakistan every year due to not being able to find jobs- is that what you are saying?

            Funny I didn’t think starvation on that level was much of an issue anymore. Why haven’t the UNDP under Dame Helen put out an international SOS for urgently needed relief?

            • Armchair Critic

              “is that what you are saying?”
              No. I’m saying that, contrary to your assertion, there wasn’t real freedom of choice.
              The labourers were under significant duress at the time they entered into the contract, and the employer deliberately took advantage of this duress.

  5. felix 5

    It’s nice to have Tim on record saying something out loud for a change, isn’t it?

    Now when he writes about “free markets” and “freedom to contract” we’ll have a reference to what he means by such things.

    • Tim Ellis 5.1

      That’s right Felix. Free markets mean half a million Indian unskilled workers can go and work in the GCC, earn five times what they do at home, and send back $20 billion a year to their families.

      • Wilson 5.1.1

        And that’s good enough for you is it Tim? Shouldn’t they be able to go over and work for decent wages in a safe environment?

        I don’t care if they can earn more than in their home countries (if they get paid), it’s still not good enough, and I don’t understand how you can think it is.

        • Tim Ellis

          So let’s ban migrant workers in the UAE. Good idea. It would just consign the migrant workers to poverty in their home countries.

          Why not, after all they’re just brown aren’t they.

          Sorry, channeling Nick there for a moment.

          Yes it is good enough for me Wilson that Indian workers are free to travel to the Emirates, earn five times what they do at home, gain work experience and can send billions of dollars a year back to their families. I think it’s inhumane to deny them those economic opportunities.

          If there are employers in Gulf States that are withholding passports and using recruiters that behave badly, then name and shame them.

          • felix

            Name and shame. That’s the way to deal with massive systematic human rights abuses.

            • Tim Ellis

              Prove they are massive and systematic Felix.

              • felix

                Proof? Totally without any, Tim.

                Sorry, I guess that means you must be right and there’s nothing wrong with any of it and it’s really all just about freedom.

                Probably most of the labour units are well looked after and there’s just a few militants making a fuss about nothing.


              • Tim Ellis

                I see you haven’t made any progress in your new year’s resolution to debate more constructively Felix. Never mind. There’s always next year.

              • BLiP

                Au contraire! Dr Felix has just presented a Master Class in deconstruction and set an example worth striving for. The dissolution of your contribution to this discussion and the reducing of your original position from the instinctive reaction of a tightly wound annoying Tory to spluttering nonsense has been a delight.


        • felix

          Shouldn’t they be able to go over and work for decent wages in a safe environment?

          No Wilson, because that would be less free. Right Tim?

  6. grumpy 6

    The use of indentured labour is common throughout Asia and the Middle East, Although we may see it as virtual slavery, that interpretation is relative to the labour environment that we know. during the housing boom, similar things were happening in NZ, Imported Asian tilers sleeping at Wellington Railway station for example.

    Has anyone seen a building site in India? Rural Thailand? Indonesia? FFS!

    We may not like the practice but it is popular with migrant workers and it is better conditions than they endure in their own countries.

    • Bill 6.1

      Seems from subsequent comments above that nobody was listening to you Grumpy.

      Might I expand on your comment? Labour conditions are relative. But all labour environments have the same single underlying dynamic in common. That dynamic is exploitation.

      And since exploitation is merely a slightly ameliorated form of slavery I find it bemusing that one group of slaves should stand up from their proverbial cotton picking to chastise the owner of the field next door as though they themselves were somehow free.

      Yes, labour conditions here are better than there….but it’s not the heart of the matter….not even close.

      Which is not to say there should be not be comment and condemnation, but it is to say that such comment and condemnation needs to be placed firmly in a wider context or risk amounting to nothing more than an apologists stance for our unacknowledged levels of exploitation and blighting of human lives.

      edit. If I am using my wages to pay down debt (mortgage etc) then I’m indentured, no?

      • grumpy 6.1.1

        A reasonable response Bill.

        All labour relationships are “exploitive” as are many other contractual arrangements. Where one party can make a profit from the work of another, that could be termed exploitive. Slavery is just an extremity of that situation. The minimum wage is just a step further away.

        I have seen women in India breaking rocks for roading gravel, men (stonemasons) hanging off ropes on the sides of buildings and a lot more. Exploitive? Certainly but a fact of life in those countries none the less.

        I think safety conditions in Dubai are much superior but nowhere near what we would expect here. Industrial accidents in Asia and Middle East are very common – unfortunate but true.

        • Bill

          I notice that Hari doesn’t divorce the reality of Dubai from the reality of England (or elsewhere), but rather marries the two instead. He makes the argument against the type of disconnect evident in some comments in this thread better and far in a far more succinct fashion than I managed when he concludes…..

          “Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.”

  7. Bored 7

    The whole Dubai tower issue will appear to future generations as a monument to the 20th century zeitgeist, a fin de siècle project that reached conceptual obsolescence prior to completion.

    As a monument to man it fits into the grand line of architectural projects that have demanded huge amounts of resources, spanning back to Stonehenge, Easter Island statues and the Pyramids. It is today’s ultimate Tower of Babel. As with all previous constructs of this type it reflects the power of a small elite to mobilize resources to reflect their personal glory, those who work on the projects are a minor consideration during the building period and a historic inconvenience to the glory of the power elite.

    History demonstrates very clearly that when the resource base that allowed these monuments to be created runs out the social and economic system also fails. In the case of Dubai it is oil. I wonder if the very same slave labourers (let’s not mess around with semantic and dogma based arguments about what the real status of these unfortunates really is) will be the same ones who in future arrive to plunder and scrap the tower for recoverable resources. Empires have a habit of becoming prey to their slaves.

    • Gosman 7.1

      What a load of twaddle.

      While I agree that Dubai has been built on a bed of sand (literally as well as figuratively) the references back to the ancient monuments you listed as indicative of the ultimate future of the building is badly thought out.

      For a start, noone knows the real purpose that the Easter Island Statues or Stonehenge were created. For all we know that might have been the result of a collective decision of the masses to curry favour with their Gods to benefit the whole rather than for the ‘glory of the power elite’.

      All three of the real world examples you used were largely left alone by people after they created and were not destroyed and plundered as you suggest (Although possibly a couple of Easter Island statues were knocked over). They also form the basis of a very lucrative tourist industry nowdays, just look at Egypt.

      Also how do expect the workers from the Indian Sub-continent to come back and pillage Dubai? Seems a little impractical give their respective geographic locations.

      While I disagree with the Dubai model of development and the need for the state to finance such a large building the outcome you postulate is not reflective of reality.

      • Bored 7.1.1

        Gee Gos you are such a narrowly focussed dullard. Just looking at the longer term picture, a couple of points to note…one is that your common garden Joe does not desire to build these creations, they are too busy survivng whilst those above them extracts their labour. Two is that buildings that have any resource value do (example ancient Rome was used as a “quarry” in medieval times ) get plundered and in a low energy future it will be more energy efficient to recover materials rather than mine and smelt etc.

        Do I think that these labourers will plunder, realistically no, metaphorically yes. Think Goths and Rome.

  8. Nick C 8

    “This building makes no economic sense, it was built on borrowed money by a country that couldn’t afford the debt”

    Since when has Marty cared about stuff making ‘economic sense’? He supports socialism.

    Kapcha: Built.

  9. outofbed 9

    Dubai heavily in dept to Royal bank of Scotland
    Royal bank of Scotland bailed out by UK taxpayer
    Therefore UK taxpayers funds Dubai monuments to stupidity

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