By Simon Bierwald from Dortmund, Germany (Dubai Sunset from Burj Khalifa) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

University set to draw on “slave labour” in major Dubai campus expansion

In October the University Council approved plans for a major project expansion of the University of Birmingham Dubai campus dubbed “phase 2”, which is set to see student numbers rise to 2,900 by September 2021, and to a full capacity of 4,500. This will involve the construction of a new purpose built facility by Tecom, a subsidiary company of Dubai Holding LLC, which is itself majority owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, in a reported £100m deal.

According to their websites Dubai Holding are responsible for major domestic infrastructure projects and netted a total 6.32bn Dirhams (roughly £1.3bn) in profits, while Tecom, the company constructing the University of Birmingham’s new campus, employs over 86,000 people [1] [2].

But while the University and their partners bring in record profits they remain silent on the treatment of the thousands of migrant workers set to be employed on the project. Human Rights Watch and others [3] [4] [5] report the abuse, dangerous conditions, confiscation of passports and the indentured labour common place in the Dubai construction industry. Workers often face extortionate debts to recruitment agencies, which are then slowly paid down out of already desperately low wages before passports are released. Human Rights Watch also cite the scale of deaths on construction sites and the lack of medical cover or compensation for workers and their families.

In 2017 Jeena Sharma, writing in the pacific standard [6], interviews construction workers and finds that the practice of confiscating passports and entrapping workers under exploitative contracts is still common place and amounts to little more than slave labour. The Guardian [7] report that two migrant workers commit suicide in Dubai every week.

It remains unclear how this can possibly sit with the University’s claims to a “global reputation”, their commitments to “responsible business”, or their duty to “public benefit” as set out in their charitable status.

UNISON, the campus trade union representing support staff, have long campaigned for the University to become an accredited living wage employer [8], which would, in principle, mean a real living wage being paid by all of the University’s contractors. Since the expansion into Dubai all of the recognised trade unions have made it clear that we expect this to be extended to the practices of the University overseas.

The plans for expansion in Dubai have only been approved by Council in October 2018, and the contracts are yet to be signed. It is not too late for the University to rethink these plans and to ensure that the workers constructing our campus are fairly treated and properly paid. But action is needed now.

[1] https://dubaiholding.com/en/media-hub/press-releases/dubai-holding-commercial-operationsgroup-records-net-profit-aed-6-32-billion-revenues-grow-aed-16-84-billion/

[2] https://dubaiholding.com/en/who-we-are/our-companies/tecom-group/

[3] https://www.hrw.org/report/2006/11/11/building-towers-cheating-workers/exploitationmigrant-construction-workers-united

[4] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/nri/middle-east-news/Indian-migrant-workers-returnhome-with-horror-tales-from-UAE/articleshow/18473461.cms

[5] https://www.migrant-rights.org/2017/09/construction-workers-in-gcc-debt-death-and-brokendreams/

[6] https://psmag.com/social-justice/why-are-migrant-workers-passports-still-being-held-hostagein-uae

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/may/27/dubai-migrant-worker-deaths

[8] http://uobunison.org.uk/update-on-the-universitys-final-pay-offer

Featured image: By Simon Bierwald from Dortmund, Germany (Dubai Sunset from Burj Khalifa) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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