ABU DHABI: Moving to a better place?

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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.

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 will 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 blamed the United Arab Emirates 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. The sons of rich sheiks driving Bentleys and Mercedeses are as telling here as the faces of migrant workers peering from bus windows on their journeys to their living quarters far from the glamour they are building.

Jeffrey Fleishman in Abu Dhabi

Top: living quarters for Dubai’s migrant workers. Credit:

Bottom: An architect’s sketch for a new high-rise in Abu Dhabi. Credit: