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Worker housing on tap for gulf

Amid criticism over labor practices in the Emirates, Abu Dhabi plans lodgings for the migrants building it.

June 07, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — They wear hard hats and rags over their faces; they hammer in the dust and, at night, they are silhouettes in the blowtorch light. They are the migrant workers turning Abu Dhabi and Dubai into metropolises of skyscrapers that uncoil from the desert sands like exotic plants of steel and glass.

These futuristic cities along the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates have been criticized by human rights groups and threatened with labor strikes over the low pay and poor living conditions faced by Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and other workers from across Asia. Foreigners make up about 85% of the UAE's population of 4.1 million, according to government statistics.

Responding to this pressure, the Abu Dhabi government announced this week that dormitories and apartments would be built for as many as 800,000 "limited- income workers," including laborers, cleaners, technicians and housekeepers.

An act of compassion? Partly. But the move is aimed at ensuring that nothing disrupts the frenetic pace of construction or spoils the image of a region that markets itself as a hip crossroads of globalization.

An official spokesman said the new dormitories would become cities unto themselves: "All utilities will be provided, there will be air conditioning, and everything needed for decent living conditions will be available."

Human Rights Watch and other groups have criticized the UAE for allowing a system in which migrant workers are paid as little as $175 a month, are forced to pay high fees to recruitment agencies, have their passports confiscated and live in crowded rooms, many of them with no air conditioning, on the outskirts of cities.

Though the sight of the sons of rich sheiks driving Bentleys and Mercedes- Benzes evokes the Emirates, as telling here are the faces of migrant workers peering from bus windows on their journeys to their living quarters far from the glamour they are engaged in building.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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