Low-paid Asian workers who toil long days to build the skyscrapers of Dubai have become the latest victims of the global financial crisis as companies run short of business and money.
For many years, the Gulf emirate was a magnet for South Asian workers who fed the booming economy with cheap manpower — from cleaners and gardeners to skilled and unskilled builders.
A report issued earlier this month showed that 582 billion dollars worth of building projects in the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, had been put on hold due to the slowdown. That was 45 percent of the total.
Arnold, a 26-year-old Filipino machine operator, found a job in a small aluminium factory only two months after arriving in Dubai last summer. But in January, he and six others from the 15-strong workforce were laid off.
“I am staying in Dubai trying to find another job,” he said, pointing out that his previous employer lost a great deal of business when many construction projects ground to a halt, cutting demand for aluminium products.
Six years of spectacular growth in the UAE construction sector, mainly in Dubai, absorbed hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly from South Asia. That had a knock-on effect, creating further opportunities for migrants.
But the financial crisis, mainly in construction and related industries, is reversing that trend, forcing foreign workers to go home.
“The crisis is worse in the Philippines. We have no future there. We are looking for part-time jobs here, anything,” Arnold told AFP as he hung out with two friends who had also lost their jobs.
Christopher, a compatriot, said he has been in Dubai for around nine months working as a welder during the day and a barista in the evening.
He and his wife, who also works in a Dubai coffee shop, used to send 500 dirhams (136 dollars) a month home, where their two kids were left behind.
Migrant workers send billions of dollars home every year. One money transfer firm, UAE Exchange, said its volume last year was 12 billion dollars, most of it to India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Like Arnold, Christopher was working illegally in the hope that an employer would get him a work permit. Now he is searching desperately for anything.
But even for labourers who were brought to the UAE on a work visa to satisfy the needs of the once-booming economy, many are receiving the pink slip.
“Some 200 gardeners were sacked recently from our company” out of about 10,000 workers, said an Indian as he planted saplings in the garden of an elegant office building in Dubai.
“They told us the company does not have much work and is short of money,” said the man in his mid-40s, refusing to give his name.
Two other colleagues, an Indian and a Bangladeshi, carried on trimming the hedge, appearing hesitant to say anything that might jeopardise their jobs.
“We are expecting to lose our jobs,” said the man, who earns a meager 500 dirhams (136 dollars) a month in return for 48 hours a week.
He lamented that two years ago he had to pay what was for him a fortune of around 10,000 dirhams (2,725 dollars) to Indian intermediaries to get a job in Dubai.
Murukesan, an Indian cleaner, said his employer, a large cleaning and maintenance company, last week told workers who had completed at least two years of work to go home on four-month unpaid vacations.
“They said do not come back until we call you,” he said with a faint smile, appearing content as he has completed only 18 months of his contract.
“In the past, workers were not taking vacations, even after four years of continuous work,” he said, highlighting a huge work load in the immediate past.
It appears some of the unpaid “vacations” are simply a way of getting rid of people without having to pay them off. Under UAE law, workers laid off must be paid 21 days’ salary for each of the first five years worked and a month’s salary for every year after that.
“They are trying to find excuses to bypass the rules of terminating a contract,” said Monir al-Zaman, labour attache at the Bangladeshi embassy.
“Compensation should be paid if workers are being fired,” he told the media, adding that companies should resort to cutting overtime work and even reduce salaries before laying off workers.
In December, Khalfan al-Kaabi, a member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said up to 45 percent of construction workers could be laid off this year if private sector projects in the UAE were delayed or cancelled.
Zaman said he could not provide a figure on Bangladeshi workers having lost their jobs in the UAE, because the process is not done “formally”.
He also pointed out that he noticed, during inspection visits to labour camps, that many workers stayed in the UAE even if they were not being paid, in hope of finding work.
But poor unemployed workers cannot linger for long if jobs remain rare.
“Maybe this month I have to decide to stay or go … because I don’t have any money. Now I’m borrowing from friends,” said Arnold.