Living Condition of Migrant Workers in Dubai

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

1990 – 2013

Esesua Ikpefan and Angela Shin


Ikpefan and Shin

“Urban planning is a technical and political process concerned with the use of land and design of the urban environment, including transportation networks, to guide and ensure the orderly development of settlements and communities.” (Wikipedia)  According to a British planner, urban planning can be asked in two different ways; “Is urban planning about physical design, or about making things easier for the people who live in our urban spaces?” Back when urban planning began, three types of people thought differently about urban planning. Architects thought urban planning was implementing ideas, such as, L’Enfants’ grand vision for Washington D.C. and New York City’s grid. Public Health Professionals urban planning consumed with infrastructure and lastlimage2y, social workers thought urban planning was using city to improve the lives of the people living there. Even though social workers and public health officials continued to play a role, the intellectual history of urban planning ended up grounded in architecture. So did unsuccessful architects and planners who only considered the aesthetic parts of cities cause a social divide by creating beautiful spaces for the upper class at the expense of the poor, forcing them to gather in separate, more affordable ares?

Dubai could be considered one of the cities that needs to be developed further. The first master plan in Dubai was assigned to a British architect, John Harris, when the population suddenly grew from 20,000 to 40,000. Harris introduced a road system, zoning of the town into areas for industry, commerce and public building, residential quarters, and a new town center. Meanwhile, the population grew very rapidly. In 1968, the population went up to 60,000, in 1975, 183,000, in 1985, and 370,800 to 674,000 in 1995. Dubai’s rapid growth of 300% in 20 years and its unsuccessful decisions on how to develop the city, lead and proved the master plan to be insufficient. Dubai implemented over five different development plans and they all failed to accommodate for the rapid growth or meet criteria for social equality. Dubai is an economically successful city and at the same time, an unplanned city. Going back to the British planner’s questions on urban planning, Dubai’s urban planning should be about both physical design and making things easier for the people who live in the urban spaces.

As Dubai develops the city in a very rapid way, there are issues that are invisible because it’s been covered up by its physical beauty, its surface. Thomas Friedman’s belief on Dubai was, “the world is flat.” In Dubai, they are just interested in mass-producing and globalizing the fantastic modern city in a short peimage1riod of time. Also Mike Davis states, “if “[Dubai] is a horror show, exemplifying the coarseness of hyper capitalism,” Dubai is “all the arduous… stages of commercial evolution have been telescoped or short-circuited to embrace the ‘perfected’ synthesis of shopping, entertainment and architectural spectacle, on the most pharanoic scale.” Too much emphasis on the superficial aspect of Dubai lead to ignorance of the migrant workers.  Migrant workers suffered from poor working conditions and wages. Furthermore, the planning led to a separation where a village called Sonapur in Nepal is where migrant workers of Dubai live. This area is not on the map, nor do the inhabitants have their identities. Villagers and workers know they need to keep quiet in Sonapur if the don’t want their jobs to be taken away or to get themselves detained. The government even lied about how “the foreign workers have been provided with favorable conditions by way of proper housing, fair wages and a human working condition.” In addition, in Dubai, at least two Indian expats commit suicide each week because of their inhumane treatment. The city is trying to hide their darker side. However, now the workers are starting to protest over their low wages and poor quality accommodation. If this continues, even the architecture of Dubai could begin to issue problemuae_emirates-population-map_720px_01s.

The urbanization of many countries during the 20th and 21st Centuries resulted in outsourcing workers for projects relating to urban planning and the sustenance of new urban environments. This is where architecture plays a role in the issues concerning migrant workers. When nations make plans to build an entire region, a complex, and in the case of Dubai, a whole city, plans are made and then given to contractors for the execution of these architectural plans.  Some contractors have turned to outsourcing workers because migrant labor is often cheaper. In other cases, people in countries dealing with different economic and political crisis move to these developing or project based cities in search of work. A similar situation occurred and is still ongoing in Dubai. When the projects are done, little to no planning is usually made concerning these workers causing a social divide between the migrant workers and the residents in the area. Nevertheless, Dubai is not the only country of recent that is dealing with situations concerning the treatment and conditions of these migrant workers as a result of  urbanization. In Europe, the current economic situation in the Balkan regions have caused some Romanian and Bulgarian workers to migrate to other countries like Germany and Britain in search of work. Many of these workers have then become involved in construction work and manual labor because the classification of timage3heir work visas allows for such jobs. In Germany, the population of such workers have risen from a few thousand to about 70,000 in the past few years and numbers are expected to still rise to up to a 100 to 180,000 by 2014. The documentary “Germany’s New Slums: Business with Poor Migrants” shows the harsh living conditions these workers face. Likewise in Britain, and also in Dubai, migrant workers face a situation of rejection by the general public. One of the most current issues faced by a country concerning outsourced workers is concerning that of Russia and the building of the central Olympic stadium, the main Olympic village, and the main media center. Workers have reported being cheated out of wages, being forced to work twelve hour shifts with no days off, and having their passport and work permits seized. Migrant workers that have chosen to speak out against maltreatment in various countries, including Dubai, have enabled different human rights organization and the media to offer help and act as a voice for change.
KDG Dubai

In Europe, different human rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch and the Health and Safety Executive in Britain have started raising awareness of the conditions of migrant workers in hopes of protecting the rights of these workers. One British news network has taken interest in the issues concerning Dubai and migrant workers. The British Broadcasting Corporation has worked as an agent in the media to become a voice and to inform outsiders about the conditions migrant laborers face in Dubai. Other companies have taken a hands on approach and dove into making plans for building better living spaces for these workers to bridge a gap between the rich, newly planned city and the migrant workers. One such organization is KDG Dubai. They recognize that migrant workers often have no offices and agencies to support them and are further separated from the people because they are forced to live in the low-income laborers housing mostly available outside the city. As a result KDG has designed towers that through a image4system of “integrated separation,” they hope to provide energy efficient towers that will act as commercial buildings on the outside and low-income housing on the inside, bringing laborers closer to their work places in the city. KDG’s plans have not yet been approved and many media reports of the current situation in Dubai have to be done in hidden ways. Furthermore they face difficulties with regards to the attitudes of the upper class living in the city, concerning their rejection of the migrant workers by not wanting to live with them.  This poses general questions relating to the role of migrant workers all over the world. Such as what are the next steps concerning the safety of these workers? And when will countries make official laws that begin to act in the favor of migrant workers?

Outsourcing of workers related to construction in urban planning goes way back to Egypt using the Israelites and during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. These issues concerning segregation and inhumane treatment seem to traverse through history and still little is being done to prevent them from reoccurring. Dubai is currently facing similar problems and Penhall is right in raising questions on why the U.A.E., or any other country, should still be facing these issues over 200 years after the Industrial Revolution.




Patterson, Adam. Dark Side of the Dubai Dream. 9. BBC, Dubai. BBC News. Web, accessed September 8, 2013.

Laborers in the Al Sajaa camp chat with each other as they sit with each other as they sit on a bed in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Saturaday Sept 4. Jebreili, Kamran. Sulekha, “” Accessed September 15, 2013.

Thousands of (migrant) construction workers in the Gulf state of Dubai (United Arab Emirates/UAE) have gone on strike over pay and working conditions. al, Jazeera. CINA, “CINA.” Accessed September 15, 2013.

Conditions of Dubai’s immigrant workers highlighted. BBC, “News Middle East.” Last modified 1 20, 2011. Accessed September 15, 2013.

Dubai: workers get six months in jail and expulsion for “illegal” strike, Last modified 2 25, 2008. Accessed September 15, 2013.


” Dubai’s skyscrapers, stained by the blood of migrant workers.” The Guardian  (2011)., accessed September 7, 2013.

Nesrine Malik explains her encounter with the harsh realities of the lives of migrant workers during her visit to Dubai. After an Indian migrant worker commits suicide by jumping off the Burj Khalifa, she is concerned with the treatment of such workers in the attempt to build a mega city. The article focuses on the inhumane treatment of these workers. For example, the author states that according to the Indian consulate in Dubai, at least two Indian expats commit suicide each week. Furthermore it reveals that the workers also suffer psychologically because they are separated by severe sponsorship laws. In conclusion, Malik discusses the issue where in a city built so fast, particularly referring to Dubai, where there are not really any enforceable employment laws, workers under sponsorship, in particular migrant workers, are subject to abuse.

Spiegel, Judith. “Migrant workers in Dubai: “They are sucking our blood”.” Radio Netherlands Worldwide. (2012).“they-are-sucking-our-blood , accessed September 8, 2013.

In this article, Judith Spiegel argues that Dubai has a darker side, but they are trying to hide it by few methods. Sonapur is a village in Nepal where migrant workers of Dubai live. This area is not on the map nor do the inhabitants have any identity. Villagers and workers know they need to keep quiet in Sonapur if they don’t want their jobs to be taken away. Also, they have no choice but to work because they are poor and Dubai is the only city that gives out working visas. Judith also says that Dubai only looks nice on the surface. If people said something bad about Dubai, they would be detained, put on black list or terminated from jobs. Lastly, Dubai lied about how “the foreign workers have been provided with favorable conditions by way of proper housing, fair wages and a human working environment.” These controversies could lead to future problems in Dubai.

Stanescu, Sorana. “Cheap, and far from free: The migrant army building Britain.” New Statesman – Britain’s Current Affairs & Politics Magazine. (accessed September 13, 2013).

In this articles Sorana Stanescu dicusses issues faced by migrant workers in Britain. She states that these workers are often looked down upon by the general public and find themselves having to do construction work at underpaid rates. The article serves as a comparison to Dubai’s current situation.

Encyclopedia Entries

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “urban planning,” accessed September 8, 2013,

“Urban planning, design and regulation of the uses of space that focus on the physical form, economic functions, and social impacts of the urban environment and on the location of different activities within it.” The Britannica Encyclopedia entry on urban planning not only defines it but also gives the history behind it. According to the entry urban planning can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages and in ruins of ancient cities in China, the Mediterranean world, Egypt, Asian Minor, and India. According to the entry, modern urban planning arose in the late 19th Century as a reaction to the chaos and disorderliness in industrial cities. This background knowledge is necessary in understanding the need for orderliness in the making of Dubai and the lengths at which the government is willing to go to achieve this need especially when it comes to migrant workers.

Encyclopedia Britannica. s.v. “Migrant Labour.” , accessed September 8, 2013.

In the Middle East, migrant workers have been usually recruited for urban rather than for agricultural employment, and involve longer periods of residence. The encyclopedia states that migrant workers have no reemployment rights, are not usually organized in unions and have limited access to the job market. The labor markets are usually disordered. It is harder to negotiate wages and working conditions with the contractors, and the standards of living for migrant workers tend to be lower than other laborers. Migrant workers are usually alien to the community of their work so they have difficulty accessing local benefits. Some of these information explains why the migrant workers suffer from disadvantages and their poor working conditions.

Scholarly Articles

Penhall, Robyn. “Shajarah: sustainable community living for Dubai’s migrant labourers.” WIReDSpace Home. , accessed September 8, 2013.

In this article, Robyn Penhall discusses the issues Dubai is facing due to its working migrant population in the attempts to rapidly build a mega city. Penhall links this issue to the one faced by America and Europe during the Industrial Revolution and questions why the U.A.E. should be facing similar issues over 200 years later. Furthermore it brings to light the issue of unsanitary and unsuitable housing given to these migrant workers as a result of the exploitation of their helpless situation. This article, furthermore, states that Dubai has been criticized by international human rights organizations and media for its treatment of migrant workers. In addition, it discusses the controversial SHAJARAH project, which is a mixed income housing development that aims to improve housing conditions for these workers. However, as stated by the article, this project is not as supported because most of Dubai’s urban planning is aimed at the wealthier residents, and not much thought is given to the lower income groups.

Ahmed, Kanna. “Dubai in a Jagged World.” Middle East Report. . , accessed September 9, 2013.

In this article, Ahmed Kanna writes about how Dubai is an invisible city with visible constructions and invisible migrant workers who suffer from poor working conditions and wages and how Dubai should scratch below the surface of the literally visible city to hit the less obvious. However, from the state’s perspective, they equally visible parts of the city. Nevertheless, Thomas Friedman’s belief on Dubai, “the world is flat,” was the most interesting. In Dubai, they are just interested in mass-producing and globalizing the fantastic modern city of Dubai in a short period of time with the migrant workers. As Mike Davis states, “it [Dubai] is a horror show, exemplifying the coarseness of hyper-capitalism,” Dubai is “all the arduous… stages of commercial evolution have been telescoped or short-circuited to embrace the ‘perfected’ synthesis of shopping, entertainment and architectural spectacle, on the most pharanoic scale.” Only the most superficial aspects of Dubai were stressed, so the political economy became invisible. And it is believed that this ignorance has lead to present condition of the migrant workers of Dubai.

Dias, Wije. “Eastern European migrant workers face slave labour in Germany – World Socialist Web Site.” World Socialist Web Site – Marxist analysis, international working class struggles & the fight for socialism. , accessed September 12, 2013.

The article focuses on the current condition faced in Eastern Germany concerning migrant workers in Germany. It gives a brief background, discussing how a large number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers are migrating to Germany in search of work. These workers however, according to the article, are, according to the article, “in catastrophic working and living conditions.”

“Russia: Migrant Olympic Workers Cheated, Exploited | Human Rights Watch.” Human Rights Watch | Defending Human Rights Worldwide. (accessed September 16, 2013).

The article discusses issues being currently faced in Russia in relation to the Winter

2014 Olympic games. According to the articles, migrant workers involved in the building for this event have said that they are being exploited by employers. Some employers have allegedly cheated workers out of their wages, required them to work up to twelve-hour shifts with no days off, and seized passports and work permits.

Orthographic Documentation

Accessed September 9, 2013.

This map/diagram shows how people started protesting over their low wages and poor quality accommodation.

Accessed September 9, 2013. . compact disc,

This diagram shows the population growth of the Middle East. We can assume that the migrant workers’ population has also risen.

Video and Audio

“BBC News – Conditions of Dubai’s immigrant workers highlighted.” BBC – Homepage. , accessed September 8, 2013.

This video takes a different approach to the issue of Dubai’s immigrant workers through interaction with the workers as well as a documentation of problems faced by these people. It compares the situation in Dubai with slavery revealing how immigration laws are used to enslave workers in foreign countries whereas in the past it was whips. A repeat of history. The workers helped to create one of the country’s largest successes and now neither the U.A.E. nor their home countries care about their basic human and civil rights.

“Cohabitation: Low income housing for Dubai – YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed September 8, 2013).

KDG Dubai is suggesting affordable and humane living spaces for workers with a system they label as “integrated separation.” They acknowledge that 25% of Dubai’s population are low-income workers a lot them earning as low as 150 dollars a month. the population of such workers is expected to grow significantly in the near future and  as of now, these workers concentrated in large camps outside city. The KDG method of integrated separation will provide an energy efficient, well ventilated system where towers will be built with the outside layer, having a separate access, to be used for commercial purposes, the second layer used for workers housing will be made of prefabricated units with built in furniture from idea, and the core used for lighting and ventilation. KDG plans to spread these towers throughout the city providing workers with close proximity to their workplace and avoiding workers being banished to the outskirts of the city.


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