US $4,000 a month, and not even a roof over their heads

For a rent of US $4,000 a month, the residents of a house in the Diafa neighbourhood on Dubai’s coastal strip might have expected a decent roof over their heads.

Instead, when torrential rains poured down on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over its Friday-Saturday weekend, Indian labourers Butaram, Ramsing and friends sat 10 to a room through a long night as water leaked through their plywood roof, soaking their beds and meagre belongings.

“We have no electricity at the moment. The landlord said he will repair it once we have finished repairing the roof,” said Butaram, an Indian labourer from Punjab who works as a loader for an international shoe company in Dubai. He declined to give his full name.

A Pakistani man collects Dhs 300 (about US $80) from each man a month for their lodging and passes the money on to the Emirati landlord, they said. With up to 10 men to a room, a house such as Butaram’s, with five bedrooms, can bring in a rent of up to $4,000 a month.

The money is clearly not spent on residential upkeep.

With a view across a skyline of soaring skyscrapers, Ramsing, a fellow Indian labourer, prepares a lunch of rice for himself and the other men in an open-air kitchen that is little more than a gas bottle attached to a burner. The toilet is a fly-infested hole in the ground, while the shower space is a narrow opening.

Inside the bedrooms, dank foam mattresses line the bare concrete floor, windows are covered with plastic sheeting and the men’s few belongings lie heaped together, with no space for wardrobes or drawers.

Butaram and Ramsing, who said they had never heard of the United Nations when approached by IRIN, each earn Dhs 1,200 ($325) per month, of which they send Dhs 700 ($190) home. The average per capita income of Emirati citizens is $2,106 per month, according to economic analysts.

“Generally life is alright for us here, but it can get hard when we have bad weather conditions. But now I am happy with this,” said Butaram, tapping his hand on a new slab of corrugated iron that has replaced the leaking roof.

The new roof and wooden struts were delivered by their employer, said Butaram, not the landlord, after the men called to say their house was flooded. Tearing down the old roof and installing the new one was a job for their free time and the landlord would repair the electricity only when they had finished, Butaram said.

The UAE has one of the least regulated labour markets in the world. The federation of seven Gulf emirates relies on a migrant workforce of more than 2.7 million people, making up 95 percent of the workforce.

A recent Human Rights Watch report found that half a million migrant construction workers face a range of systematic abuse by their employers, including lack of basic housing.

The UAE government insists it is taking steps to improve living conditions for Dubai’s manual labour force, the majority of whom are Asians from impoverished rural backgrounds.

Across Dubai Creek, in the old vegetable market of Hamariyeh, 10 Pakistani workers are soon to move into a newly built government flat in the south-west Qusais neighbourhood. Their current quarters have been officially designated a family zone from which the bachelors have to vacate.

While their new living conditions will still be cramped, they will at least be cleaner. Jalil Secunder, a 25-year-old from Lahore who works at the 24/7 supermarket in Dubai Media City, is apprehensive.

“My rent will go up by Dhs 50 ($14) so I am going to have to ask for a raise,” he said. “I hope I get it.”

With the Dubai Meteorological Department forecasting the chance of further rain this coming weekend, many of the city’s residents are bracing for more flooding.

hm/ar/ed