Street Workers of the Gulf

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

wash2 Lured to the Gulf region with the promise of a brighter future and a steady salary, poor expatriate day laborers are finding it increasingly difficult to provide for themselves and their families back home. Most are residing in the region on expired visas, which means they are illegal residents and can face prosecution if caught as they are in violation of residency codes. Typically, their sponsors have long since ended their relationship with them by either not paying their salaries or firing them from their jobs. And with zero financial resources to get back home, most are forced to earn whatever living they can from the unforgiving streets.
The glittering buildings and sparkling malls of Dubai are a pretty convincing façade for a country in which so many people are suffering. Most of the laborers come from Southeast Asia and have specialized skills in construction but little formal education. However, as the construction boom that struck gold in Dubai a few years ago continues its heart wrenching downward spiral, many laborers are being laid off and not even given the courtesy of a return ticket home.

With limited skills, many of the illegal laborers have turned to the streets to look for work. For some, scavenging semi-precious metals and recyclables from garbage cans around the cities of some of the richest countries in the world has been the only way to earn enough money to buy a single meal. Kuwait is one such country where it is not uncommon to see men, and sometimes women, digging through garbage dumpsters to collect whatever ‘valuables’ lie within. Several pounds of recyclables yield a very minute amount of cash. It can often take an entire day to earn enough, and that often does not even meet the poverty standard for most industrialized nations.

The city streets of Dubai also provide a minimum amount of opportunity for earning a meager living. Street hawkers walk up and down busy intersections hawking everything from washcloths to flashing neon toys to anyone willing to roll down their window. They risk their lives dodging between heavy and fast-paced traffic to earn a couple of dollars a day. And the hawkers must keep an eagle eye out for authorities, as they will be arrested on the spot for selling goods without a license. Other laborers have found that washing cars is the best way to earn cash. At any given time of day, men with buckets of murky water and even grimier towels offer their car wash services to any car that approaches.  They are easy to spot, often seen wiping down brand new Jaguars and Land Cruisers in the sweltering heat of summer.

The governments of most Middle Eastern nations have taken on their very own version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. The sponsorship system is the law of the land and the vast majority of expatriate workers are not even afforded the most basic of human rights. Instead, they are left to scrounge for whatever living find and only dream of one day making it back to their homelands.


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