Yesterday at the Community Blog, I posted some excerpts and a link to a very strongly anti-Dubai article from Australia. It specifically focused on the treatment of the Asian laborers who are building the mega-projects that are giving Dubai its worldwide fame.

No news article or blog post is going to settle this issue. But it always seems like these sorts of article conflate two separate issues.

The first issue is the lying and cheating that many face from dishonest job agents making false promises and employers who withhold wages, have overly dangerous working conditions, and/or refuse to allow workers to take breaks when the temperature soars. Not every worker face these problems, but far too many do. The Dubai government claims that they are cracking down on these abuses, and they may be - I don't know if they are doing enough. But regardless, no one is defending these types of abuses.

The other issue is the general working conditions that the all these laborers face: low pay, dangerous jobs, years away from family, crowded living conditions, and so on. It is these that are much tricker.

It seems to me that many of the Westerners act in a paternalistic fashion towards these (second-type) issues, not just about these issues in Dubai, but about 'sweatshop' factories that manufacture clothing in Asia and elsewhere. But the men who are coming here to work in Dubai are adults, capable of making their own choices and deserving of respect for those choices. If they are honestly told and so know what the situation is like here and still agree to come to work here, then they must have decided that being here, as unpleasant as it is, is a better option for them.

Now I have to admit, that is a horrifying thought. It breaks my heart that people will choose to go through what they do here because it is the best choice. Denying these people the chance to work under these conditions might make us Westerners feel better about ourselves, but it isn't helping the laborers if they just have to go back to the worse conditions that they were trying to get away from.

Take the example of Kathy Lee Gifford. In 1996, she was castigated and humiliated because it was reported that her clothing line was made in Honduran sweatshops. But a careful examination of the facts revealed another side of the story. The average worker in Honduran apparel sweatshops made "$13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country's population lives on less than $2 per day". So basically a bunch of Westerners got to feel better about themselves while putting poor people in an even worse position.

In the West, this exactly what our ancestors did when they went to work in the mines or in sweatshops, because the alternative was worse. I'm glad that my ancestors were willing to do those things, and that there were people there to give them those opportunities, instead of letting them starve.

It is very simple to call what is going on exploitation. It may sooth your conscience. But it isn't going to make things any better.


Seabee said...

Good points. Another example is the child labour issue. It would obviously be far better for the kids to be in school than working. Well-meaning but naive westerners go to close the sweatshops and that often takes away the child's family's only source of income. A rock and a hard place.

These things really are very complex. We're dealing wih a guest worker society, with fraudulent 'employment agencies', with bad employers, with people from poverty-stricken backgrounds...

Have a look at my post on 'are they better off here?'.

There are discussions going on between labour importing and exporting countries, laws being passed, more inspectors being employed etc etc. Of course it should have happened years ago, but at least now it's going in the right direction.

Brn said...

The child labor issue is a perfect example. No one wants their children to be working in a factory, but if the alternative is for these children to be forced into prostitution, which is what happened when sweatshops were closed in Vietnam, how is anyone's life improved?

If we really wanted to improve things, focus on the dishonesty. That is something that we can actually fix, and it would have a much bigger improvement in these lives.

hemlock said...

Brn, i loved your post, not because it is in defence of dubai, but because it looks deeper at why the blue collared worker chooses to be here. it's about the opportunities they have, or the ones they dont have.
modern-day slavery is a global phenomenon. child prostitution in romania, mine workers in china, brick-kiln workers in asia...
Footballs (as in soccer balls) were coming out of Sialkot, a city in pakistan, and the whole child labour issue was raised and FIFA threatened to stop buying them unless the children were taken off the production.
thousands of families suffered and dived below sustainance level simply because they had no alternate sources of income.
right or wrong, if the government cannot look after the people, the people have to look after themselves... and for that they make their own choices.
and that's why a foreigner is just that - an outsider - he will never understand the inside story.

Marcus Aurelius said...

A couple of things are going on.

It is sorta about "feel good" but this is a situation where people get to eat their cake and to have it too.

I recall seeing an ad in a Manila newspaper looking for a skilled machinist. The advertised pay amounted to $10.00/day when I know a skilled machinist in the states earns much more than that in an hour.

I think it is more about jobs. Shutting down those shops in Vietnam made it a little more likely people here in the States can hold onto their job for a little while longer. However, people can preen about how "good" they are shutting down shops where people only earn $13.00/day, after all that can hardly buy them a cappuccino in a trendy coffee shop.

Brn said...

Thanks hemlock.

Marcus, I think that you are right about the other issue that no one wants to be honest about is that many of the complaints about trade with "sweatshop" nations is that it hurts some workers in the West, so it allows some to combine moral preening and self-interest at the same time - a pretty nifty twofer.