This week’s news that three British tourists arrested for drug possession have been tortured by Emirati police* while in custody has – understandably – been met with all the horror you’d expect from the British press, and with all the empty bleating you’d expect from Foreign Office spokespeople desperate not to upset a country that’s about to buy 60 fighter jets from us.
It goes without saying that the British government’s unwillingness to take a stronger stance for fear of upsetting an arms deal is morally repugnant, but somehow I find myself struggling to be as shocked or disgusted by this story as I might be. Make no mistake; torture is barbaric, and no one, ever, under any circumstances, deserves it, no matter who they are or what they’ve done: not Osama bin Laden, not Henry Kissinger, and certainly not three men whose only alleged crime is the possession of a bag of synthetic cannabis. It’s also important to remember, however, that it’s hardly a secret that Dubai is an authoritarian autocracy (not incidentally built on expatriate slave labour), and despite that these three men still chose it as a holiday destination.
The treatment of migrant workers – mainly from Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent – in Dubai has been reported time and again over the past few years. Five minutes of Googling brought up stories from the Guardian…
How is life, I ask.
“What life? We have no life here. We are prisoners. We wake up at five, arrive to work at seven and are back at the camp at nine in the evening, day in and day out.”
All of these men are part of a huge scam that is helping the construction boom in the Gulf. Like hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, they each paid more than £1,000 to employment agents in India and Pakistan. They were promised double the wages they are actually getting, plus plane tickets to visit their families once a year, but none of the men in the room had actually read their contract. Only two of them knew how to read.
“They lied to us,” a worker with a long beard says. “They told us lies to bring us here. Some of us sold their land; others took big loans to come and work here.”
Once they arrive in the United Arab Emirates, migrant workers are treated little better than cattle, with no access to healthcare and many other basic rights. The company that sponsors them holds on to their passports – and often a month or two of their wages to make sure that they keep working. And for this some will earn just 400 dirhams (£62) a month.
[W]e managed to speak to some of the men living there [at a migrant workers’ camp] on condition of anonymity.
They told a grim tale. None had been paid the money they were promised by the recruitment agencies, and many said they couldn’t afford to eat properly, living on a diet of potatoes, lentils and bread. Average salaries are often no more than £120 a month. This for a six-day week, often working up to 12-hour shifts. One company paid approximately 30p an hour for overtime.
…and Australian paper the Age:
I visited Akbar in Sonapur. He’s a 26-year-old Afghan and has been working on a Dubai building site since 2003, after he gave $2500 to a labour broker in Kabul. That got him to Dubai, where he was promised he’d make that back in a month, and be able to send some home. Akbar says he clears about $10 a day for a six-day week, sharing a putrid room with 10 other men who sleep in shifts, alternating between the five bunk beds and the floor. Sleep can be difficult. Shift changes and prayer means there’s constant activity.
In a scalding recent paper, the New York-based Human Rights Watch demanded the UAE “end abusive labour practices”, describing working conditions in Dubai as “less than human”.
Equally well-known is the Emirati state’s propensity to arbitrarily detain and torture anyone they don’t like, be they political activists, insufficiently decorous British tourists, or just people who are unlucky enough to upset members of the royal family. (Don’t click that last link unless you have a strong stomach. Really.) Yet look up information about travelling to Dubai as a tourist and you’ll find people waxing lyrical about the grandeur of the hotels, the lavishness of the meals or – for some unfathomable reason – the joys of a big fountain with musical accompaniment. There’s even a Guardian Travel article – called, without a trace of irony, “The other side of Dubai” – in which the author reveals that the shiny skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls aren’t the whole story; apparently there are some nice old houses and picturesque harbours as well, so Graun readers can still feel refined and superior about their choice of holiday destination even if Premiership footballers go there too.
A holiday in Dubai is a holiday made possible by slave labour, and if you go there the money you put into the economy as a tourist helps to prop up a government responsible for torturing and mistreating huge numbers of people. Choosing to ignore that and travel there anyway categorically doesn’t make it acceptable for the Emirati police to detain and torture you. But for some reason – call it compassion fatigue – it does make it that bit harder for me to be outraged by it.
*The torture is officially only “alleged”, but given the Emirati police’s past human rights record it can almost certainly be assumed to have really happened.