Dubai's glittering, futuristic metropolis came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of workers, and recommending it as a tourist destination feels wrong

  • The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is known for extravagant, newly built landmarks like the Burj Khalifa, the Palm Jumeirah, and the Dubai Mall.
  • In just over two decades, the city has transformed from a desert backwater port to a thriving metropolis with the third-most skyscrapers in the world.
  • While the rapid development has produced a futuristic city, it has come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of workers who suffered to build it.

Three decades ago, Dubai was little more than desert.

The city exploded in prosperity after the United Arab Emirates discovered oil in 1966, leading to a development boom that has resulted in the world’s tallest building, the second-biggest mall, one of the most luxurious hotels, and more skyscrapers than any city besides New York and Hong Kong.

From the outside, Dubai looks like an unmitigated success story. But for those looking at Dubai and wishing their country or city would use it as a model, Dubai may be more of a cautionary tale.

The shiny, glass towers hide the trampling of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers hailing from countries like Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

Nearly 90% of Dubai’s 3.1 million residents are expats, many of whom are migrant workers brought in to work on construction projects or in service jobs. Most come alone on the promise of much higher salaries than in their home countries, so they can send money back to their families.

But Dubai and the UAE have long been the subject of complaints of mistreatment of workers. Migrant workers say they often face brutal work conditions, shifts of 12 hours or more, and that companies withhold paychecks or workers’ passports so as not to let them quit or return home.

Most workers are brought over by recruiters or recruitment agencies, many of which promise exaggerated salaries or job descriptions that differ greatly from what the workers end up doing.

The “kafala,” or visa sponsorship, system has been singled out as perpetuating some of the worst abuse, by Human Rights Watch. The system requires employers to sponsor employees’ visas for a fee, which the employers frequently pass on to workers.

Many workers are in debt to their employers for the cost of arranging their contracts, visa, and travel to Dubai, the New York Times found last year.

Under the kafala system, if a worker tries to leave their job without permission, they can face fines, prison, or deportation. As a result, many have little legal recourse if they find themselves in a bad situation or one differing from what recruiters promised.

“There is a huge dependence on migrant workers who have employment terms that are no different than indentured servitude,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that documents abuses of migrant workers, told The New York Times last year.

“This is a system that’s put in place to entrap workers.”

In recent years, Dubai’s government and the UAE have appeared to work to fix the situation.

Training sessions are now held regularly to educate workers on their rights and the UAE has adopted a system to ensure on-time salary payment.

Last year, the country passed laws to establish working hours, paid sick leave, and stiff penalties for employers or recruitment agencies that fail to guarantee legal rights, use violence against workers, or fail to accurately convey the expected job description or salary to workers before bringing them to the country.

While recent reports from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations acknowledged improvements, both said labour abuses continue. HRW said the reform laws still allowed employers to charge workers the recruitment fees that can put them in debt.

Most of the workers come of their own accord, out of a serious need to make money because their home countries are impoverished. That makes it all the more tragic that the existing system seems set up to exploit them.

The knowledge of how migrant workers have suffered to make Dubai’s vast constructed reality – which is more or less set up to fulfil a person’s every whim, if you have the money to pay for it – makes it hard to recommend it as a place to put your tourist dollars.

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