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Dubai is enjoying a construction boom, at the expense of many immigrant laborers

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Every day before dawn, Gangyah Kundala folds up his blanket; steps over nine other men sleeping on the floor in a stuffy, windowless room; says a silent prayer before a cardboard altar fastened to the wall; and slips outside.

For 10, sometimes 12, hours each day, Kundala lays brick at one of dozens of construction sites in the heart of Dubai's mind-boggling building boom.

The job was supposed to bring the 33-year-old easy money to send home to his wife and three kids in India. But, like thousands of other foreign workers lured to Dubai by the promise of prosperity, Kundala's hopes have been battered by the stark reality of this Middle East boomtown.

"When I got my visa I was very happy," Kundala said while standing in the labor camp room he shares with the others. "But now I know Dubai. It's no profit to come here."

Dubai's unrivaled building frenzy is creating one of the Middle East's most enticing and elite vacation getaways, but it's supported by an increasingly disgruntled foreign labor force that's creating tensions in the Persian Gulf nation.

Faced with squalid living conditions and what they say are dangerous construction sites and unscrupulous employers, foreign workers are beginning to fight back. They've staged sporadic strikes to protest low pay. Women brought in to work as domestic servants are running away. In the biggest outbreak so far, hundreds of workers rioted last week at the construction site for the world's tallest building.

"The general business and labor environment in the United Arab Emirates resembles the Wild West," said Hadi Ghaemi, a Middle East researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch who's studying the problems in Dubai. "It is really a gold mine for any opportunistic charlatan who wants to enrich himself using other people's labor and get away."

While countries across the Arabian Peninsula have brought in millions of workers from India, Pakistan and countries in Southeast Asia, Dubai is the epicenter for a Middle East construction boom.

Two years ago, Kundala paid about $2,500 to get a three-year work visa to come to Dubai. When he got here, he had to turn over his passport to his company, as most foreign workers do.

He makes about $270 a month. Like the nine men sharing his room at the labor camp, he pays $50 a month—about half of what he's able to send home—for his space on the concrete floor. The room isn't much bigger than a large American walk-in closet. Workers hang their clothes from pegs above their sleeping spaces, wash in plastic buckets and cook outside on communal stoves in a makeshift kitchen.

Kundala lives in one of the worst labor camps on the outskirts of Dubai. At the better ones, six workers share quarters barely big enough for three metal bunk beds fitted with thin foam mattresses.

There are labor camps like these across the Arabian Peninsula. But nowhere is the problem more acute than Dubai. One of the country's seven emirates and uniquely poor in oil, Dubai is at the peak of a decade-long building boom, largely for tourists. It's already home to the world's most luxurious hotel, the region's only indoor ski slope and acres of high-end shopping malls. Developers are building audacious projects in the shape of palm trees and what they hope will be the world's tallest building.

There are upward of 2 million foreign workers in the country doing everything from building hotels and driving taxis to cleaning houses and working as prostitutes. While the United Arab Emirates sets basic standards for labor camps, it has only 80 inspectors to keep track of an estimated 200,000 companies doing business here, said Ghaemi, and as few as a third of the camps meet the minimum requirements. Officials with the country's labor department didn't respond to repeated requests to discuss the situation.

Dubai has tried to respond to the concerns. Last fall, the police department set up a 24-hour labor-complaint hot line and says it's already recovered nearly $300,000 for 25,000 workers.

But many workers are reluctant to complain to the government because their situation is so tenuous. Workers who protest and lead strikes are reported to have been quickly kicked out of the country.

The bleak living conditions, combined with long work hours and low pay, have also led to rising suicide rates. Last year, Ghaemi said, 80 Indian residents took their lives, up from 67 in 2004. One worker hanged himself at a construction site last year. In one of the more dramatic recent cases, a Pakistani taxi driver set himself on fire in front of his company after reportedly being refused permission to return home to visit his ailing mother.

If the United Arab Emirates really is concerned about the problems, Ghaemi said, it should join international treaties that protect workers and human rights.

"It's really the source of the problem," he said. "The government is not acknowledging its obligations."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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