Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Capitalist Paradise

I saw a TV documentary about Dubai a few months ago. I remember it fairly well. It focused on the lives of some British expats 'working' there. They were living the life of Reily - a constant whirl of hedonistic society events, of hob-nobbing with millionaires, film stars and supermodels - all in a highly paid and, of course, tax free environment. Most of these people, it should go without saying, were deeply unpleasant and (it seems fair to add) almost entirely worthless people - but there was a certain seductiveness about the lifestyle they led. There was also a certain seductiveness about the self-image, the self-descriptive narrative of 'entrepreneurial' flair that these people articulated towards the camera. They were living it up because they had the 'get up and go' to secure a job in Dubai - because they worked hard as a 'party-planner' or property developer (or whatever) in an environment in which ambition and 'risk-taking' was very well rewarded. One couldn't help wondering towards the end of this hour long documentary in which we got to follow several 'self-made' and extremely wealthy ex-pats (beautiful people all of course) around the luxurious tax exempt shopping malls and around their huge pent house apartments and hotel rooms, whether there wasn't something to be said for this capitalist paradise - whether us lefties had got it all wrong. Doubt. Maybe, if we stopped moaning and developed some personal initiative, maybe if we dropped our tut-tutting ways and flew out to the UAE, we could have it all too. This lifestyle, after all, as ex-pat after ex-pat was eager to remind us, was just there for the taking - all you needed was the 'drive to succeed' and a 'can do attitude'.

At the end of the documentary, however, the second programme of the series was trailed. It indicated the conditions of the people on whom the wealth of Dubai is built - the masses of poorly paid and poorly protected 'guest workers' who toil in the oil fields and who work as servants in the houses and hotels of the rich. It was only a brief trailer, but it punctured the 'too good to be true' tone of the documentary quite violently - it was, indeed, too good to be true. This capitalist paradise turned out, precisely, to be a paradise for the capitalists - while for the rest (dare we call them the 'proletariat'?) things weren't quite so rosy.

In the latest NLR, Mike Davis has a wonderful (although deeply enraging) piece on Dubai. He describes the architecture of the place as 'Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby' - an exotic playground for the rich which manages to be both kitschy utopian and deeply sinister at the same time. It's quite amazing what those disgusting fuckers - the rulers of Dubai - go in for. They are, apparently, building a series of islands in the sea in the shape of a map of the world - and the mega-rich are invited to buy a 'continent' for their own amusement. He provides us with a powerful description of the lives and working conditions of the 'invisible' inhanitants of this paradise, however - the faceless workers who build and maintain this unreal, nightmarish world:

The great mass of the population are South Asian contract labourers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls. Dubai’s luxury lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan and Indian maids, while the building boom (which employs fully one-quarter of the workforce) is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians, the largest contingent from Kerala, working twelve-hour shifts, six and a half days a week, in the asphalt-melting desert heat.

Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ilo labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’

In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots—like the proletariat in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—are also expected to be generally invisible. The local press (the uae ranks a dismal 137th on the global Press Freedom Index) is restrained from reporting on migrant workers, exploitative working conditions, and prostitution. Likewise, ‘Asian labourers are banned from the glitzy shopping malls, new golf courses and smart restaurants.’ Nor are the bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts—where labourers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, often without air-conditioning or functioning toilets—part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury, without poverty or slums. In a recent visit, even the uae Minister of Labour was reported to be shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the labourers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested. Dubai’s police may turn a blind eye to illicit diamond and gold imports, prostitution rings, and shady characters who buy 25 villas at a time in cash, but they are diligent in deporting Pakistani workers who complain about being cheated out of their wages by unscrupulous contractors, or jailing Filipina maids for ‘adultery’ when they report being raped by their employers. To avoid the simmering volcano of Shiite unrest that so worries Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Dubai and its uae neighbours have favoured a non-Arab workforce drawn from western India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines. But as Asian workers have become an increasingly restive majority, the uae has reversed course and adopted a ‘cultural diversity policy’—‘we have been asked not to recruit any more Asians’, explained one contractor—to reinforce control over the workforce by diluting the existing national concentrations with more Arab workers.

Discrimination against Asians, however, has failed to recruit enough Arabs willing to work at the lowly wages ($100 to $150 per month) paid to construction labourers to meet the insatiable demands of the exploding skyline and half-built mega-projects. Indeed the building boom, with its appalling safety record and negligence of workers’ most basic needs, has incubated Dubai’s first labour rebellion. In 2004 alone, Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 880 construction workers were killed on the job, with most of the fatal accidents unreported by employers or covered up by the government. At the same time, the giant construction companies and their subcontractors have failed to guarantee minimum facilities for sanitation or adequate supplies of potable water at remote desert labour camps. Workers also have been exasperated by longer commutes to worksites, the petty tyranny (often with a racial or religious bias) of their supervisors, the spies and company guards in their camps, the debt-bondage of their labour contracts, and the government’s failure to prosecute fly-by-night contractors who leave Dubai or declare bankruptcy without paying back wages. As one embittered labourer from Kerala told the New York Times, ‘I wish the rich people would realize who is building these towers. I wish they could come and see how sad this life is.’

As Davis comments, 'the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato Institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.' Dubai is the 'free market' at its purest. It is distilled capitalism.

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