For people like 32-year-old Goyal, who arrived in Dubai in January from the Indian agricultural heartland of Punjab, a monthly trip to the beach is one of the very few affordable and available sources of entertainment. ‘We swim, sit around for a few hours and buy a sandwich and a can of Coke. It is an inexpensive relaxation and I do not spend more than AED 15 [$4],’ he explains.
It is a much-needed day off for Goyal, who works six days a week, 13 hours a day, on a construction site. ‘I came to the Gulf thinking it to be a land of plenty and promise, but it has proved to be a case of deceit and disappointment,’ he says.
Goyal was among 200 Indian labourers recruited in early 2005 by a UAE-based company for work on a three-year residential project in the Jumeirah suburb of Dubai. The Indian recruitment agent promised a monthly salary of AED 900 ($245), a 48-hour working week with overtime, complimentary accommodation, food and medical insurance, a return air ticket at the end of the three-year contract and 30 days’ paid leave a year. Despite having to pay the agent a one-off fee of $1,800, the offer appeared too good to turn down: Goyal’s monthly salary in India was just $160. ‘We were also assured that our employer was a leading Western company, so there would not be any breach of promise,’ he says.
However, as soon as he touched down at Dubai International Airport, Goyal began to have misgivings. On landing, his passport was taken away by the sponsor’s representative, who was not from a Western contractor, but a small local outfit. ‘I was informed this was the norm. It came as a surprise, but I did not protest as I saw my compatriots falling into line.’
Worse was to follow. Goyal and his colleagues were taken by bus to the labour camp, a makeshift facility for 3,000 workers, located two kilometres behind The Gardens residential development and surrounded by barbed wire. ‘It was a nightmare. Ten people were asked to stay in a 150-square-foot room. We were provided with bunk beds and told that the latrine was about 300 metres away,’ he recalls. ‘At least there was some air-conditioning. But there was no television or any other form of entertainment in the camp, nor were there any arrangements in place for food.’
Goyal’s biggest disappointment came the following day, when he was handed his UAE employment contract. ‘I was recruited as a plumber with a monthly wage of AED 900 [$245]. But the position on my contract stated that I was a mason with a salary of just AED 750 [$204]. I confronted the company and told them I was being cheated and deceived, but they said they had no choice as the MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] package had been subcontracted to another firm.’
Goyal was also informed that a sum of AED 450 ($123) – paid by the employer for obtaining his health card – would be deducted from his first payslip along with a visa fee of AED 100 ($27). In addition, Goyal had to make arrangements for a single food parcel made up of pitta bread and vegetable curry to be delivered to his accommodation every day at a cost of AED 160 ($43) a month.
‘It was a disgrace. I paid $1,800 to the recruitment agent, by liquidating my end of service gratuity from my previous employer. I even sold my motorcycle. But now I am here what can I do? I need to repatriate money to my family and rebuild my savings.’
The first 15 days in Dubai were tough. ‘I was depressed, but when I heard similar stories from my colleagues I decided to accept it as fate.’ Goyal’s day starts at 4.30am when