DUBAI(AP) — The world’s economic shadows caught up with Employee No. 861 at the lip of a construction site on Dubai’s desert outskirts.
The foreman tapped on the dump truck’s window and broke the news: The project was slowing and fewer workers were needed. Muhammad Munir Bahadar’s next paycheck would be his last.
Such scenes have been repeated in millions of variations from corner offices to factory lines as the global economic landslide rumbles on.
But in places such as Dubai — built on imported laborers who banked on the promise of steady construction jobs — there is a distinct brand of desperation: A rising number of low-wage foreign workers, like Bahadar, have become stranded with neither the chance to leave nor the immediate prospect to resume work.
“We are the ghosts of the financial crisis,” said the 36-year-old Pakistani, fingering the expired work site ID that he keeps in his wallet. “It has killed us, but we still roam the streets.”
Bahadar now gets by with some small savings and what he can borrow from fellow Pakistanis who still have their jobs. Bahadar’s last remittance to his family back home came from his last check in December.
At least, he said, he still has a bed at no cost in the company’s labor camp: a series of shabby, motel-size rooms packed with bunk beds, cheap suitcases and work boots lined up outside. But he doesn’t know how long this will last if he remains jobless.
Worker advocacy groups, including the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, have stepped up pressure for wider protections covering the hundreds of thousands of unskilled construction workers, mostly from South Asia, who flooded Dubai and other Gulf boomtowns and now face the fallout from leaner times.
The demands include ending the illegal but common practice of companies holding workers’ passports and effectively blocking their chances of looking for other jobs under a rigid sponsorship system.
“The system needs to be revamped. Otherwise, expect the exploitation to continue,” said Azfar Khan, a senior economist and expert on Gulf labor issues at the International Labor Organization.
Officials at the United Arab Emirates Labor Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Khan noted some steps by Emirates authorities to improve housing conditions in company-run labor camps and enforce existing codes that prohibit employers from keeping the workers’ passports.
As the Gulf faces its first real economic squeeze of the decade, the U.N. agency is undertaking a survey of living and working conditions in the Emirates, said Khan. There is a category for those such as Bahadar in an economic purgatory: the entrenched.
There is no clearinghouse to determine how many other workers like Bahadar are in the Emirates, but it could easily be in the thousands and climbing. Proleads, a Dubai-based market research firm, predicted in a February report that nearly 53 percent of the Emirates’ construction projects — worth an estimated $582 billion — have been put on hold and more may be frozen this year.
“To us, Dubai meant work and money to send home,” said Bahadar. “All I can send home to Pakistan now is bad news.”