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March 14, 2010


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It's a key part of the system that unskilled and semiskilled workers should be voiceless, powerless, and vulnerable -- feature, not bug. So, it's hard to compare it to any American city. (Or at least, to any American city of the last 75 years or so.)

Mild to moderate abuse of workers is chronic and almost normal in Dubai. More severe sorts of abuse are clearly quite common, though precisely how much so is hard to say. Again, feature, not bug. So it blurs the comparison to anyplace that has even halfassed sort-of-enforced human and workers' rights regimes.

Doug M.

Coming from another perspective: don't forget the role of labor contractors. If you want to open a TGI Fridays in Dubai, you don't go out and find your own workers; you go to a labor contractor. You say "we need X number of cooks and Y number of waiters", there's some back-and-forth -- Filipinos out front, Bangladeshis in the kitchen is the default; do you have a preference? Which slots should be filled by males, by females? Do you need attractive females for particular positions -- greeter, say? And then they go and find your people.

One thing that made Dubai different is that in some other Gulf states, these guys were bigtime rent-seekers. They'd be run by some well-connected locals. And they wouldn't be subject to real competition -- foreign labor contractors would be frozen out, hard. So, at best, they'd be kind of sluggish and not very competent. At worst, they'd be corrupt, evil fucks who would cheerfully screw over both employer and worker, and if you didn't like it? Take it up with my brother, the Emir.

What made Dubai different was that from the git-go, they threw the labor /contractor/ market open. There are some huge contractors -- the sort who employ hundreds of people, bring in tens of thousands, and who will indeed buy a few thousand airplane seats at a time and think nothing of it. And there are dinky little ones that are just a couple of guys in an office somewhere. And everything in between, including some that are very specialized.

The contractor market is open, but it's also regulated. The simple version is, Dubai will not allow labor contractors to screw over employers. Employees, absolutely -- especially employees from poor countries -- but employees, no. If you order 20 experienced short-order cooks from Sri Lanka and you get a couple of dozen Pakistanis who don't know which end of the egg to crack, you can find swift and effective recourse.

I suspect this system has been stressed in interesting ways in the last year or two, but I can't begin to guess how it's playing out.

Doug M.

"Dubai doesn’t pay the costs of educating all those workers; nor does it have to worry about their retirement."

On the other hand, a lot of their wages -- how much? There must be figures -- flows right out of Dubai and back to their homelands. So the multiplier effect of those wage payments is much lower than it would be otherwise.

It's pretty clear that Dubai still comes out ahead. Well ahead! But the remittance effect is significant, both for Dubai and for the workers' home countries.

Doug M.

Balance of payments figures are collected at the UAE level, so it's hard to figure out the value of remittances from Dubai per se. That said, it shouldn't be too hard to get a good estimate.

Agreed about their importance, and the importance of labor contractors. The only real reform has been the requirement that the ultimate employer take responsibility for housing conditions by, for example, putting its logo on the dormitories where its workers live. From what I saw, living conditions were not terrible (note the AC units) albeit overcrowded and without neighborhood
amenities outside the Koran-memorization centers.

Also agreed about the comparison with American cities, but that's why I brought it up. Someplace that's 90% foreign-born and offers no path to citizenship with places that are 40% foreign-born and have a long record of assimilating them. That was my point! Honest question, for my own use: was that point lost, or were you just reiterating?

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