Workers of the World…What?

On strike in Paris, Northern Ireland, Cincinnati...and Abu Dhabi


In July, the snazzy futuristic Burj Dubai gained the official title of the tallest building in the world. But more importantly, it's currently the world's tallest unfinished building. And this week it looked like the capstone might be significantly delayed when thousands of non-citizen workers went on strike for the first time in the United Arab Emirates, following up on a construction worker riot last March.

In the United Arab Emirates, striking is outlawed and labor union formation is forbidden. The workers sought a wage increase of between $140 and $270 a month (the average income in Abu Dhabi is $29,175), improved transport to construction sites, and better housing. The foreign workers are usually tied to a single commercial outfit, and live in housing blocks owned by the company or the government.

The strike was resolved with a carrot and a (big) stick, as Dubai started proceedings to deport 4,000 workers while simultaneously promising to crack down on employers guilty of health and safety violations. On the terms of the deal, workers promised to return to work today. (Some returned to work yesterday, and the government claimed the strike was officially over, but at least 2,000 workers at Sun Engineering & Contracting and Construction Co. remained off the job site as of this writing.)

Senior labor ministry official Humaid bin Deemas told the Arabic newspaper Emarat Al-Youm there would be a "deportation of 4,000 laborers who went on strike and committed acts of vandalism." He added, "The laborers do not want to work and we will not force them to."

Which is fair enough. Since foreign workers frequently can't stay in Dubai without employment, being deported is the inevitable consequence of firing. They're mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and most send money back to their families.

Actually, thanks to the booming Indian economy, many workers are ready to go home. In June, the government offered free one-way plane tickets to illegal workers hoping to leave. There were 280,000 applicants.

Still, it's refreshing to see unions doing what they were designed for: aggregating workers and agitating for better conditions using a resource they actually own—their own labor. They're bravely acting without the benefit of the special government protections that unions enjoy in the U.S. and Europe. In fact, they're striking in spite of government aggression against them, and against significant odds.

The businesses in the UAE were not given the choice of dealing with strikers on their own terms, so the situation in Dubai was far from a pure labor market interaction. And business and government are so intertwined in the UAE that it may not have occurred to them to ask for it.

In fact, the strikers were mostly demanding that existing government decrees on worker welfare be enforced. Last fall, United Arab Emirates prime minister and the emir of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum issued requirements for improving the lot of foreign workers, which resulted in the shutting down of about 100 businesses that failed to comply in the last year.

But yesterday the chief of police in Dubai promised to do better. "The bosses of construction firms which fail to provide appropriate working conditions to their staff will be taken to court," General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim said in a statement.

"Dubai police will carry out inspection tours of workplaces to check whether businesses are respecting the instructions of Prime Minister and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum."

This is just one in a series of recent stories about Dubai's bumpy road toward Westerization and/or modernization. The United Arab Emirates boasts "the most modern legal system among the Arab countries," which is a little like being the most talented Spice Girl (they're back on tour soon, by the by). And you have to give them some credit for not killing the strikers, even if unionizing remains illegal for now.

It's been a while since unions in the U.S. undertook anything so brave or impressive.

At the same time that workers in Dubai were striking, U.S. television writers were gearing up to strike over rights to DVDs and Internet downloads. This leaves the American people facing the tragic prospect of a season of 24 with only 9 hours.

In Ireland this week, teaching assistants for special ed classes struck, with special needs kids stuck at home while pay and the terms of teacher evaluations were squabbled over.

In celebration of November, the French planned a month of strikes to defend the right of people in certain professions to retire with a pension at 50 years old.

Meanwhile, 11,000 employees of the Kroger grocery store chain are teetering on the edge of a strike because of proposed pay increases—an increase of 10 cents and hour for baggers and 95 cents an hour for department heads—are too low. The union also said it was worried about the funding of pension plans. Kroger points out that it is experiencing intense competition from Wal-Mart, whose workers are not unionized.

Kroger advertised for scabs at $10 to $15 an hour, but it was reported that the striking workers expected solidarity from other unions, who wouldn't cross the picket line to make deliveries, work, or shop.

If workers really wanted to show solidarity with their beleaguered brother and sister laborers, rather than hitting the Wal-Mart for their 6-pack tonight instead of the Kroger, they might look to the workers in Dubai, who are carrying on the tradition of the original union organizers rather more impressively than they are. Workers of the world unite, indeed.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor for reason.