On 10 March 2015, news outlets worldwide reported that several hundred construction workers had protested their labor conditions in Dubai.[i] The action took place in an area of the city often considered the center of “New Dubai.” Workers streamed out of the construction site for the Fountain Views residences, a tower selling vistas looking over the world’s largest choreographed fountain. Without a choreography of their own, the protesting workers wandered somewhat diffidently into morning traffic. Described as a “rare” event, this was not the first labor demonstration in Dubai. That said, such demonstrations—let alone strikes—are illegal in the United Arab Emirates. The workers likely knew this: there were no signs, no rote chants. They did not so much demonstrate as just leave work. They could only exploit their en masse attire of mint-green coveralls and company-issued fluorescent yellow vests, which did what they were designed to do: alert attention to the wearer. One might surmise that the employees did not select their stage based on its central or dramatic location in Dubai; they chose it because that is where they worked, not where they lived. A poignant message from the Fountain Views demonstration is that workers’ demands were about withheld weekly pay, not about living conditions, impossible debt burdens, withheld passports, or the inequities embedded in the kafala system.[ii]
[Tweet from the account of the Government of Dubai Media Office announces that Dubai Police were able to "resolve the issue in less than an hour." In the image an officer from Dubai Police calls out instructions to the builders at the Fountain Views construction site after police had corralled them into a semi-enclosed area nearby. Dubai Media Office, Twitter post, March 10, 2015, 6:49am (ECT), https://twitter.com/DXBMediaOffice]
While living conditions have not been laborers’ primary grievance, their accommodations, namely labor camps, have been “a crucial site” for how governmental and non-governmental parties respond to international demands for better working conditions. According to geographer Michelle Buckley, labor camps have offered “a set of spatio-political fixes” for specifically addressing, or muting, labor disputes. By focusing on the conditions of labor camps, government policy can implement architectural and urban strategies that appear to address labor unrest and the global media attention it attracts. Unlike housing, other workers’ grievances, such as the elusive structures of hiring and pay, do not come with easy images of decrepitude. For both critics and government officials, the physical state of housing and its expected amenities provide more tangible and visible ways to demonstrate improvements than, for example, trying to reform recruitment systems. Whether or not outside critics choose to focus on housing, media focus remains set on workers’ housing. The result continues the gradual deterioration of how Dubai’s lowest-wage workers may occupy the city. A brief history of labor housing in Dubai reveals that the focus on housing has brought only limited improvements, if any at all, to workers’ daily lives in Dubai.
[Map indicates where housing has been designated for Dubai's lowest-paid workers, beginning with the 1960 plan's designation of "third-class lodging." Labor housing is divided into three chronological categories: 1. Maroon. Cordoned areas where workers and their families built barasti-style housing for themselves. Informal housing was regulated in the sense that rectilinear right-of-ways were maintained for fire safety (see Figures 3-4); 2. Blue. Designated areas for labor housing were set further out as the city expanded in areas that were also designed for industry. Early barracks-style housing was first built. Eventually these were demolished as they became dilapidated, and they were replaced by multi-story slab building (see Figures 6-7); 3. Green. Omran Workforce Accommodations represent the latest versions in labor housing seen throughout the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf. More services are provided to residents; however, the securitized site's distance from city center makes it more difficult to residents to partake in the city. (Figures 8-9).]
Building the Labor Camp
To perceive the effects of ongoing international discussion of Dubai’s labor conditions, it is essential to understand current laborers’ housing as a historically shaped condition since the city’s earliest modernization programs. Dubai has long been a home to a migrating and destitute labor force, much longer than the city has accommodated labor camps. The labor camp is a relatively recent spatial product in Dubai that aided the city’s development goals from the mid-1990s onward.
[An earlier type of labor housing in Dubai's Al Muhaisnah district, one-story barracks-style housing allowed for communal exterior spaces where workers could socialize and cook in the warm months. Photograph by author, .]
In earlier decades, the labor camp was more prevalent in Gulf cities like Kuwait City, Dhahran, and Abu Dhabi, where they were used to contain and control the much-larger fluxes of laborers arriving to work in oil production. Today Dubai’s low-wage labor force is characteristically associated with the labor camp, a barracks-style housing type that is walled, gated, and likely managed by yet another subcontractor.[iii] A labor camp houses only men or only women. Further, it is most often surrounded by other labor camps, therefore suggesting that there are designated and delineated locations in the city for this kind of housing, such as in the districts al-Quoz and al-Muhaisnah.[iv] These areas of Dubai are often misleadingly portrayed as a hidden or dark side of Dubai. Quite the contrary, designated locations of labor camps are easily accessible from Dubai’s most traveled roadways. Until 2010, anyone could enter a labor camp. Presumably as a result of increased media coverage, entry to the labor camps is now more often secured, but it takes no great effort, even as a white man, to walk around the labor camp districts and to eat in the cafes and shop in the stores that serve the camps’ residents.
At the start of Dubai’s accelerated modernization in the 1950s, Dubai’s poorest residents arriving from inland or from overseas were most often living in what were called barastis.[v] An idealized form of the barasti is made from fastened palm fronds and might be considered a traditional building style, connected to Dubai’s desert landscape. In reality, it was a less-than-pure, informal housing type, often reinforced with packing materials scavenged from Dubai’s increasingly globalized port. In 1957, during the hot month of August, a fire broke out across an expanse of barastis on the city’s edge. The fire “was quickly fanned by a strong wind, and within half an hour had swept over a large area, consuming approximately 400 [barastis].”[vi] No death toll was reported. British officials used the tragedy to push their agenda: more municipal organization. The barastis had to be spaced apart from one another and from the city. Division began to be formalized.
The expedient housing type endured well through the 1970s as an accepted, if informal, way of living. The barasti’s flexibility meant it could be constructed almost as quickly as it could burn down. Two years after the deadly fire, control of the barastis and therefore the lives of Dubai’s poorest was further regularized by the political agent in a document he titled “Dubai Lands.” The document later functioned as the brief for Dubai’s first master plan delivered in 1960, which cited the former document’s three “classes” of housing. The first two classes of housing were prescribed as concrete buildings. The third class, also called the “lodging area,” was reserved for “the poorer classes.”[vii] Officially recognized in Dubai’s first urban planning document as the “third class,” barastis were now officially banished to outside the city center in a delineated district beyond the city’s outer ring road. The “third class” district is the only designated area of the plan that did not have a finite edge, suggesting an infinitely expanding grid of barastis away from the city.
Controlling the Flux of Workers
Through the 1990s, South Asian, English-language newspapers covered both how Indian families were dependent on money transfers from relatives in the Gulf and how Indian migrant workers were being treated abroad. Confronted with tales of deplorable conditions in the daily press, one Indian reporter went to see Dubai for himself in 1978. He reported that “facilities provided to Indian labour can even euphemistically be described as enviable. None of the workers I met had any serious complaints… They live in plywood houses and about three to five workers share a room provided with a fan..” [viii] The use of plywood suggests that this housing was not very different from the barastis, but that it was now provided by the employer. While there would have still been examples of more shantytown-style housing as late as 1979, it is fair to say that the visiting reporter witnessed the early semblance of a labor camp in Dubai.[ix]
It was not until the 1990s that English-language newspapers used the term “labor camp” to describe Dubai’s worker accommodations. This suggests that by then more workers were starting to be segregated according to their specific jobs and employers modeled labor-camp housing after those in neighboring petroleum-rich countries.[x] In a 1995 article, the Financial Times delivered one of the earliest accounts of how Gulf cities’ poorest migrants were at risk of being exploited by spurious middlemen and legal systems that did not protect them.[xi] In the following year, the Dubai government began an aggressive campaign to expel unregistered foreign workers. At that time, in the entire United Arab Emirates, there were officially 1.8 million nonresidents, of which two hundred thousand were expected to leave either voluntarily on chartered flights or by force.[xii] Many were reported to have employers who had not paid them for months. Even if they could afford the departure without due wages, leaving Dubai would eliminate any chance of ever collecting that due pay. UAE officials claimed that more than 160,000 left by the deadline; one thousand three hundred alone left in the dank and windowless hull of a cargo ship outfitted with twenty wooden boxes as makeshift toilets.[xiii]
There was no economic crisis that necessitated this evacuation. Quite the contrary, Dubai’s economy was healthy. Mere weeks after the departure deadline in early November 1996, Dubai unveiled its first ever “strategic development plan.” The city’s focus would be on “capital—rather than labour-intensive industries.”[xiv] It cannot be overlooked that, within a year of the strategic plan’s release, a coauthor of the plan, Mohammed al-Abbar, helped found Emaar, one of Dubai’s largest real estate firms and the developer of Fountain Views where the 2015 demonstration occurred. In May 2002, Dubai’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum designated parts of Dubai’s real estate market as open to foreign ownership. The decree launched the building boom that jolted the city’s development pace. Emaar and other major Dubai developers were already in operation to supply the boom.[xv] Their development projects demanded as much labor as Dubai could obtain from where it had traditionally come (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) and from new places (Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and China). Now with the advantage of a more controlled system of labor immigration, “lodging areas” were replaced with labor camps, where the “labour-intensive” parts of urban development and real estate speculation would be more controlled and formalized than ever. Workers arrived on airplanes, no longer boats, and were checked in accordingly at customs.
The most common practice was for construction workers to reside in clearly delineated labor camps with the name of the employer emblazoned on a gate house.[xvi] Labor camps were located in sections of the city designated for them. By 2006, it seemed that every camp was being run by, or for, a particular company. Company buses ushered workers between work and and employer-regulated residences. Workers were less residents of a city than workers whose lives, inside and outside work hours, were ensconced in companies’ twenty-four-hour organization charts. The labor camp helped make that relationship even more explicit. All scales of a labor camp’s development were linked to the employer, from the site they obtained from the government to the construction of the building to the provision of mattresses.[xvii]
During site visits to labor camps in the al-Quoz and al-Muhaisnah districts of Dubai in 2006, I found conditions of labor camp housing in transition. Conversations with nearby residents revealed that dormitories had to be demolished about every five or six years as it was cheaper to build a new camp than maintain an old one. Decommissioned older barracks were single-level concrete block structures, often with shared outdoor courtyards. Some of the early examples were constructed of less durable materials and with leftover building supplies, such as tile and doors from the construction sites where the residents worked. Shading was offered by planted trees and by terraces that residents built out of found materials. The exposed courtyards were usually filled with shared kitchens and appliances salvaged by residents. From observations, it seemed there was a low standard of living but at least a sense of community that was not so present in later renditions of the labor camp.
Responding to Human Rights Watch
Published in 2006, “Building Towers, Cheating Workers” was Human Rights Watch’s first published treatment of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates since it had begun covering topics in the Middle East and Asia in the 1980s. The report claimed that eight hundred migrant construction workers had died in Dubai in 2004. With statistics like this one, the report is arguably credited for an ensuing cascade of journalistic articles about deplorable conditions in Dubai’s labor camps, which has become a regularly covered topic about Dubai. Public officials were called upon to answer to accusations of maintaining low health and safety standards, forbidding the creation of organized trade unions, and doing nothing to protect workers from the exorbitant fees demanded by recruiting agencies.[xviii] Dubai’s planners responded by instituting more controls on how and where migrant laborers live in the city. They encouraged denser and higher-built districts for laborers that looked more like apartment buildings than barracks. More controls resulted in more accurate ways to measure this sector of the population (and to make potential deportation programs easier).
Organizing laborers into camps made them more visible to external observers, but it also set up a more legible means to respond to outside criticism. In January 2008, UAE labor officials held a forum with their counterparts from the Asian countries where most low-wage laborers hailed. Recommendations were made: Dubai’s workers were to be better protected by a new “raft of regulations.”[xix] In October 2008, Dubai’s health director reported to the Financial Times that a total of 159 labor camps had been forced to close, out of a total of nearly 1,500, and 4,953 inspections had been carried through, a thirty-five percent increase from the previous year. The ability to track progress was delivered as a confidence booster in Dubai authorities’ ability to monitor problems. Dubai officials responded with clear, if sparse, “municipality rules” prescribed for labor camps: a minimum of forty square feet of residential space per worker, a maximum of eight people assigned to a room, at least one shower for every ten residents, sanitary eating areas, a first aid room, adequate fire exits, and proper drainage systems. These proposed regulations did little to address the major focuses of the HRW report.
[This later version of labor housing in Dubai's district of Al Muhaisnah (sometimes referred to as Sonapur, or "city of gold) materialized certain requirements, including air conditioning and minimal living area per person. Residents use the outer railing to dry their laundry, which is washed in sinks or machines installed in communal spaces on the ground level. Photograph by author, .]
Already in 2006, one-story camps were being replaced by multistory, single-loaded buildings with outdoor corridors. The new camps were even more regularized, with selfsame rooms and evenly dispersed toilets and kitchens. Based on consistent designs shared among labor camps, it seemed there was a more coordinated service in providing turnkey camps for employers. It is understood that the municipality or local land owners lease property to companies that build and provide housing for companies, such as contractors, resorts, security service providers. Each shared room in a labor camp included an air conditioner and a window, usually blacked out by the residents. These newer buildings, often painted maritime blue or tangerine orange, were shrouded with clean laundry drying over the exterior banisters. One might observe that the laborers’ standard of living was increasing, in that achievable standards were being met: regularized number of beds in a room, air conditioning, newer premises. However, the quality of living is up for question: cooking had to happen indoors in less-than-ideal conditions, bedrooms lost outdoor access, and workers had less say in the shaping of their surroundings.
“Welcomed and Laudable”
In October 2008 the Financial Times referred to “workforce accommodations,” being built by Nakheel, one of Dubai’s largest developers. In similar fashion to its major development projects, Nakheel gave the workers’ complex a proper name: Omran, an Arabic word that can be translated as “solid structure.” In addition to comfortable accommodations, it offered “outdoor sports facilities, swimming pools, communal IT resources, retail space, a canteen providing three meals a day, and even a professional laundry service.”[xx] The Financial Times reported that HRW found the private-sector response “welcomed and laudable,” but needed to see structural changes from the government. Further, one might question just how improved living was for the workers.
[By the early 2000s, labor camps were being built three- to four-stories high, taking away residents' access to the ground. Communal contact is restricted to the narrow gangways along room entries and to unenclosed and unpaved areas between the slabs of housing. All furniture and utilities are supplied by the employer's camp management. This photograph was also taken in the district of Al Muhaisnah. Photograph by author, .]
Arriving at the vast complex of the first five thousand beds (a total of sixty thousand were planned), I could not help but notice the impenetrability of the site. A guardhouse almost three miles from the site along pock-marked road keeps away any unregistered visitors. If you are able to get close enough to see it, a barbed-wire perimeter contains the housing much like a low-security prison.
[Entry to the Omran Workforce Accommodations, just past the guard house and barb wire-topped fencing. Photograph by author, .]
One needed an identity card to get in (and out) or clearance from the twenty-four-hour administration. The swimming pool had yet to be filled. [xxi] There was a basketball court, but the daytime heat made it useless. Although this first phase of Omran was rented to capacity, a Nakheel employee was available for informational tours for those interested in securing space for their laborers in upcoming phases. The grounds were neat and manicured, if sparse, with a sampling of fragile saplings and kit-of-parts gazebos.
[The rear side of a row of housing at the Omran Workforce Accommodations near Dubai's Port Jebel Ali. At time of visit, there was evidence of a modest effort to begin landscaping the site. Photograph by author, .]
The buildings were all the same type of prefab construction in a medical green color. There were unoccupied one- or two-person “executive” rooms available for viewing. The guide confirmed that a maximum of four persons shared a single room. An executive room had the feel of a room in a brand-new hostel, or maybe a halfway house. They were outfitted with veneered furniture, a tray of glasses and a water cooker, overhead lighting, and an illuminated mirror.
Residents at Omran can only cook water in their rooms for tea and instant coffee; other than that, they have to rely on meals at scheduled times in the canteen. They do not, and cannot, wash their own laundry. Each resident is issued a color-coded laundry bag and an ID card.
[Interior of an "executive room" at the Omran Workforce Accommodations. Workers are not allowed to cook anything other than water in their rooms. Furniture, bedclothes, and other amenities are supplied by the accommodation's management office. Bedclothes and workers' clothing are cleaned by management. Photograph by author, .]
There are communal rooms: a library with few books, a giant flatscreen television with planted rows of chairs (a rope line discourages standing), a billiards table, and a gym. I was told that there was an ATM machine and a bus that would shuttle workers to the city on their days off. I did not see the bus. Omran lies about thirty miles from Dubai’s older districts, where low-paid workers might find shops and cafes that they could afford to frequent. In the older labor camps much closer to these districts, there were regular bus routes and opportunities to share a cab into town. Isolated in the desert, those options are not available in newer camps like Omran. Additionally, this isolation makes it almost impossible for residents to be observed by anyone not involved with running the camp. The experience of utter isolation might be the most troublesome condition. Once again, new living standards address international scrutiny and in the process remove workers further from the city and take away much of their freedom of movement.
A Concluding Parable
As Nakheel opened the Omran Workers Accommodation to the first residents, the Dubai developer launched the adjacent fifty-hectare Waterfront Landscape Nursery. There, more than 156,000 plants, shrubs, and trees were being grown to provide future landscaping throughout the city of Dubai and, as one trade magazine described it, “to create a pleasant, community-driven environment for the end-user.” In 2008 the project was “flourishing amidst the desert,” as a Nakheel executive stated, and had the ambition to produce four million plants every year. Touted as a sustainability project by Nakheel, the nursery conserved water and energy by employing treated effluent collected from the adjoining Omran Workforce Accommodation’s sewage system. There is no longer mention of the nursery on Nakheel’s website, though it still appears to be in operation according to Google Earth. It seemed a telling plan at the time: human waste and water collected from laborers resting at home were feeding the nursery’s plants. Even when they were at rest, workers continued to help beautify the faraway shopping malls, boulevards, and traffic circles. Dubai’s adaptive approach to labor housing, which has seen a gradual displacement of workers not only to increasingly distanced edges but also into tightly secured premises, will make it less likely Omran’s residents will ever witness the city that they, at work and at rest, have made possible.
[This is an abridged and revised version of an article originally published in Perspecta 50: Urban Divides.]
[i] See “Construction Workers Stage Protest in Dubai Over Pay,” Daily Star (Beirut), 11 March 2015; “Foreign Construction Workers Stage Rare Protest in Dubai Over Pay,” Guardian, 10 March 2015; “Video: Workers Stage Strike In Downtown Dubai Over Wage Issues,” Gulf Business (Dubai), 10 March 2015; “Dubai Foreign Workers Stage Rare Strike,” NDTV (Delhi), 11 March 2015.