Tuesday, November 08, 2005

subcontinent workers in gulf - exploited or bestowed with fortune ?

Indian office goers are familiar with a term ‘office boy - OB'. For developed world, this term is unheard of. In Arabian Gulf, however, companies owned or managed by subcontinent personnel do have gulf version of this office boy

Gone are the days in India when OB would sit on a wooden square stool with his folded vernacular language newspaper only to get up after seeing flashing of red light outside the manager’s cabin and preparing Tea at specified hour. Indian OB in 80’s would often be a shy boy in mid 20 migrated from either Konkan or Bihar region with almost no knowledge of English. Gulf OB is often an undergraduate fluent in his mother tongue, Hindi, and familiar with English. In few months, he becomes adept with all office gizmos fax, photocopier, answering machine, and even PC. His skills range from preparing courier parcel/documents to the very assignment for which he was recruited– preparing Tea. You can count on his honesty - He would be the first one to open the office and last one to leave ensuring that power is switched off and office is properly locked. He can be telephone operator, messenger boy and even filing assistant as the need arises. You can notice him more by his grin than his looks. If you were to look for contented and happy man in office, you would likely narrow down on OB. His greeting always imbues warmth for every visitor and if visitor was a known and familiar face, then he would insist on his special Tea or Turkish coffee.

Though he has an option of salary of 1200 Dirhams inclusive of everything, he prefers to get salary of 800 Dirhams a month that is app. US$220 with company provided ‘bed space’, food, transportation to work and an air ticket to home every two years. This salary stands him out with his village folks. If his company were to get visit visa for his grown up son, he would eternally be thankful to his masters and perhaps would retire in the same company.

Gulf OB is very cautious about his expenses. Out of 800 Dirhams, if he were to spend anything more than 100 per month, he would admonish himself. His essential monthly expenses include buying 30-dirham telephone card to call his family every Friday when call rates are half, sharing satellite TV subscription, and weekend treat with his friends. Remaining 700 Dirhams go back to his family without fail. He is counting every Dirham, After all, he has borrowed nearly 100,000 of rupees (app 8,500 Dirhams) to pay to visa agent to secure visa to Dubai. He is counting months when he would start earning in real sense.

Security personnel in apartment buildings who work with registered companies are elegant with immaculate attire and are easy going with environ of air-conditioner. Like Gulf OB, they also earn 800 Dirhams and share room on terrace/ adjoining parking lot with other colleagues. However, opportunity of making extra buck comes from liaising with real estate agents as 'informant' about possible vacant flats, giving access to Chinese CD seller to approach homes. Being Egyptian or North African graduates , they are fluent in Arabic and posses working knowledge of English language. Indians generally do not prefer security job. They would rather slog it out and make extra money than enjoying air conditioner and western attire. Those armed with driving license and English language would prefer driving Dubai Taxi –Toyota Camry and be on road until sleep overcomes them. They could go as high as 3,000 Dirhams with overtime.

Gulf OB, Security personnel, Taxi Drivers are by far the most fortunate workers compared to thousand of others who are in hopeless grind of working as construction laborers, gardeners under scorching heat or deliverymen in grocery stores ferrying 20-liter water cans on their shoulders with vegetables in one hand to homemakers who summon them every few hours over telephone. So is the plight of cleaners in the apartments whose job is to keep floor shining, elevators spanking. These cleaners work 7 days a week, 8 hours a day for a paltry 300 Dirhams. They look for innovative ways to make up the loss – mostly by manual car washing– at 100 Dirhams per month per car by waking up at wee hours.

"There is a limit to human sufferings and exploitation".This is the message that construction laborers brought to the public, media and even to the Govt by blocking the traffic, shouting slogans – something that no one dared to do in this part of the world. This made govt. to take notice of their plight by pulling up errand contractors to give them timely salary. The living conditions of labor are appalling with 150 square foot room squeezing seven people. It can go even upto 10 sharing the same space. Their wardrobe is about the size of three shoeboxes - the only space they have to store all their worldly possessions, including their clothes. An average labor camp consist of roughly 400 -500 men, although some others had more than a 1000. I do hope that as dubai gets swanky with malls and high rise buildings, these men who have burnt their skin and toiled their limbs in an unrelenting high temperatures of desert conditions get at least what they have been promised when they took their jobs.

Most pathetic are those who have come to the country by buying a visa but without a job. It is known as free visa – it costs app RS 50K without sponsorship obligations. They are mostly Bangla Deshis. They hang around in the mall’s parking lot and seek business by washing cars. While busy earning few dirhams, they need to keep an eye for not getting nabbed by police. Pathans from North West Frontier too come under the same category but they slog it out all day by either loading / unloading of goods or driving private rundown taxis in smaller emirates. It is sad that their own fellow citizens’ push these people into this situation by promising fortune and making them borrow to arrive in Gulf. These people without jobs and with no assured income either stray in illegal activities thereby ending their sojourn in prison or extending their stay illegally hoping to get amnesty after few years.

It is difficult to decide if these workers could be termed as objects of human exploitation or symbol of lucky migrants. It depends the you look at the situation. @1200 Dirhams /month @ 10 hours/ day makes them earn app. 4 dirham/hour (equivalent to US$1.1/hour). Compare this with US minimum wage of US$6.00/hour, you feel pity for them. However, if you were to compare this with India’s US$0.20 /hour, you feel they perhaps got a better deal.

If you were to ask these very people if they were exploited. Their answer would be 'No' with the exception of few construction laborers and free visa migrants. Their argument is based on simple logic; "at least we get guaranteed food and a bed"


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