Dubai, Nov 13: The carpenter with the shy smile earns twice what he might back home in India, but Tapas Biswas spends six days a week on the dangerous skeleton of a skyscraper in Dubai, guiding crane loads of concrete and girder.
An energy-fuelled economic rise has crammed this country's seaside with hundreds of shimmering skyscrapers, $1,000-per-night beach hotels and resort islands shaped like palm trees. But the projects have been built on the backs of 6,00,000 Asian labourers like Biswas, who may toil in debt bondage for years with few legal rights, says a report issued on Sunday by Human Rights Watch.
"None of us wants to be here. The work is too hard and there's not enough money," said 23-year old Biswas, who makes about $180 (about Rs 8,500) a month.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says hundreds die in unreported accidents on dangerous job sites. “The Emirates,” the watchdog said, "has abdicated almost entirely from its responsibility to protect workers' rights."
The men earn as little as $135 (about Rs 6,500) per month in a country where the average wage is $2,100 (about Rs 1 lakh), Human Rights Watch says. The workers often toil for two or three years to pay off debts to unscrupulous labour recruiters, it said.
"There's no reason for a global economic powerhouse like the UAE to tolerate abusive and exploitative labour practices," said Hadi Ghaemi, a Human Rights Watch researcher. "None of this construction would be possible without these imported workers."
Labour Minister Ali Al Kaabi said the Emirates is beefing up its enforcement of already strict laws on labour rights and human trafficking. Al Kaabi acknowledged there are just 80 labour inspectors — too few to keep companies in line.
"Our laws are tougher than anyone else's in the Mideast," Al Kaabi said. "But the lack of inspectors means sometimes we don't see these problems."
The report comes days after Dubai leader Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum issued a sweeping programme of labour reform that appeared timed to undercut the watchdog group's findings.
And on Saturday the country's ruler, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, announced tough penalties, up to life imprisonment, against trafficking in humans, which has illegally brought domestic servants, prostitutes, and others.
Now, Sheik Mohammed has ordered the creation of an inspection directorate and a system of labour courts. He also requires companies to provide health insurance for all foreign workers and allow them to change jobs more easily.
Sometime next year, Al Kaabi said a new force of 2,000 inspectors will police this country's building sites and desert labour camps, home to hundreds of thousands of migrant workmen from South Asia.
"We're in the spotlight because of Dubai's development," Al Kaabi said. "Success means you get a lot of criticism."
The Emirates, like other Gulf countries, relies on foreign labour for private sector jobs. Labour conditions are similar in nearby Kuwait and Qatar; worse in Saudi Arabia and slightly better in Oman and Bahrain, Ghaemi said.
While the reforms may cut abuses, they will not do anything to raise salaries, which Al Kaabi said were set by "the market" in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan where wages are a tiny fraction of those in the wealthy Gulf.
Gulf developers use a clever tactic of "in-sourcing" labourers on three-year contracts, hiring men in South Asia on salaries that appear reasonable in their home countries. In many cases, the men go into debt to pay their own airfare and visa costs, even though Emirates law says companies must pay these fees. Workers wind up toiling a year or two just to pay off their loans, the rights group found.