Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Trouble With Labour

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The local partner of the New York Times, which reprints the newspaper for a small and discerning audience in the UAE, chose not to print one issue of the paper this week, Monday's, which carried a report on the labour conditions of the men who built the now completed New York University building in Abu Dhabi.

The article is of course available online for anyone who knows what an Internet is. It's linked here. Buzzfeed, playing Chinese whispers, makes a number of small but critical errors in its coverage of the incident, claiming this is "...the first time UAE authorities had tried to censor an NYT story."

Except it wasn't any 'authority'. The Khaleej Times reprints the NYT and the decision was clearly theirs. The NYT's own letter to subscribers makes it clear that Khaleej Times "deemed it too sensitive". Not the National Media Council, which would have been the censoring body if authority was to come into play.

The move, a muckle-headed one on KT's part if you don't mind me saying so, does the UAE a disservice. The story needed to be aired locally, the attempt to suppress it was clearly futile and did more damage to the country's reputation than letting the piece run would have caused.

I am increasingly frequently enraged by expats acting the censor. They err on the side of caution, fearful for their precious tax-free jobs and then they make fools of us all. We can't talk about that, best avoid this. The whispered, winked conversations are infuriating. It's the politics of the playground, my dad's bigger than yours. "I'm, let us say, close to those in authority and I don't mind telling you this wouldn't play well," says Sam Cheeseman as he stamps his mark on the commentary which actually doesn't 'cross' any 'line' as we know it.

The National Media Council has read, and passed for publication, two of my three serious Middle East based novels. I subsequently chose to take content out because I thought it unnecessarily offensive - my choice and decision entirely and not based on fear of my position here but purely on my judgement of the fine line between what is necessary to make a story 'play' and be realistic and what would annoy or cause offence to my readers. The 'C' word, for instance, I eventually chose not to use because I know women who find it highly offensive and the story lived on just dandy without it. The NMC left it in, I took it out.

The NMC has not asked me to change a word of my books. Not one word. Ever.

Olives - A Violent Romance contains pre-marital sex between Muslims and Christians, Muslims drinking alcohol and other stuff. Beirut - An Explosive Thriller goes way further. There's all sorts of stuff in there, from prostitution to heroin, booze and murder. The NMC didn't bat an eyelid.

Writer friends are sore amazed that books have to be read before being 'passed' as fit for publication, but the NMC is on a journey. When I first dropped wide-eyed onto the tarmac at Dubai International back in 1988, the Ministry Of Information ruled and its rule was indeed heavy-handed. The UAE gets very little credit for how very far it has come in such a relatively short time. Don't forget the UK was still banning and censoring things right up into the 1980s, from Lady Chatterley's Lover to Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax.

So you can stop wagging your finger in this direction, matey.

But the core fact in the NYT story and the spate of others like it that really has me wondering is this, undoubtedly set to be most unpopular, thought. If things are so very bad for labour in the UAE, then why - over fifty years after they started building this place - do the workers still come here?

I appreciate conditions are hard, harsh even. But has anyone done a comparative study of labour conditions in, say, Dhaka compared to here? I'm here because I'm better off than I would be at home. And so's everyone else. That's not a shallow argument or excuse. It's simple, plain fact. Ever since Safa Park was a makeshift shanty town for illegal immigrants (it later shifted to Mamzar), people have flocked to the UAE from the Subcontinent to work. Thousands of them have become millionaires in the UAE - having arrived with nothing.

Does that make it all any better or more admirable? 'Course not. But by living here as expats we condone the practice implicitly, perhaps even complicitly. Labour conditions in the UAE have clearly improved significantly over the years I have been here, but European sensibilities are still offended by the camps and reports of 12 hour workdays, let alone the deaths of men travelling from Umm Al Qawain to Jebel Ali to work.

Then there are the practices of agents and usurious visa salespeople, which have led to the popular phrase 'indentured labour' or, as the NYT weasels, 'resembles indentured servitude'. The gombeen men who prey on the workers are not Emirati, but from the workers' home countries. The, apparently infamous, kafala system applies to all expats in the UAE, it's simply sponsorship. That's what the word means, that's what the system is. Your employer provides your visa, contracts with you to employ you and is essentially in loco parentis, whether you're a labourer or a CEO.

Is it abused by companies? Yes. Widely? Yes. Is enough being done to stamp out the abuse of workers? No. Does suppressing media reporting of it help? No. Do constant skewed reports of labour conditions here by callow Western journalists applying selective sampling to make the story more dramatic and create more appealing headlines help the situation?

I'd argue not, actually. There's a lack of balance in the debate and by neglecting the efforts of the enlightened, you empower the entrenched.
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Aby said...

"Do constant skewed reports of labour conditions here by callow Western journalists applying selective sampling to make the story more dramatic and create more appealing headlines help the situation? I'd argue not, actually. There's a lack of balance in the debate and by neglecting the efforts of the enlightened, you empower the entrenched."

I am struggling to understand this particular bit in your post, and since your response mirrors what I've been seeing in a few other expat comments on this topic as well, perhaps you can explain this better to me. How was the NYU Abu Dhabi news report "skewed"? This "balance in the debate" you talk about: are you saying a report should be written as, say, "Hey, shit's really bad here, but it's totally rocking at this other place." What good does that do, really?

Sure, I understand that it'd be nice to see some stories of where construction laborers are being treated fairly and just, but that doesn't mean that we should criticize journalists for pointing out the kinks that actually exist in the country. I don't get this argument for "balance"--if a thing is wrong, it's wrong. Why do we need to balance it with a "good" example anyways?

Alexander McNabb said...

Hey Aby

The point of 'balance' in journalism is to look at where stuff is great and balance that with where stuff is crappy.

The obverse is also, surely, true. So there are crap labour conditions in the UAE. There are enlightened employers, too.

So we think labour camps with multiple workers per room are bad, but then we can bleed about it on our iPads made in factories where conditions are so bad, there are nets up to stop workers suiciding.

'Fair' in a UK context is, for instance, different to 'fair' in a US context. We don't treat labour in the UK as badly as the US treats its Mexicans, for instance, in the clothing factories.

And in the UAE, Sri Lankan labour comes here because conditions are better than in Sri Lanka. They might not be the same as those in Cleethorpes, but they beat Colombo.

The trouble is Cleethorpes never has to actually LOOK at Colombo. It can in the UAE, and it finds the sight unattractive when it's having a holiday in the sun.

I'd rather reporters went to Dhaka and talked about the awful leather industry and its iniquitous use of child labour and wide scale heavy metal pollution. There's where you'll find real, grinding, poverty and abuse. But then that's just me.

The UAE's not perfect, but in a region of failed states, it's doing a hell of a lot of things right. And where it's not, it is generally - genuinely - trying to change stuff.

At the same time, this is a 'laissez faire' economy - if labour will come for the deal, the deal will be set at the lowest price labour will come for.

That is good old fashioned capitalism.

The people preying on the labour and 'indenturing' them are NOT the employers. VERY few of these reports on the UAE's labour bother to make that point. And the authorities who can act on these practices are actually not here, but in the labour's home country.

But that's all too complex, isn't it?

Dave Edwards said...

Good to have you back spitting feathers!

Aby said...

Thanks so much for responding, Alexander. I have been rather busy with work, else I'd have replied sooner.

First--I think I need to make it clear that I actually quite liked, and agreed with, most of your post. My problem, as I said before, was with that last bit about calling these reports "skewed" that I highlighted. So, while I agree that the UAE is getting a lot of things right, and that it has come a long way from what it used to be, and that it'd also be nice to see stories about enlightened employers here--I don't think any of that is a reason for stories about the problems here to be swept under the carpet.

Sure, there are problems in China and Dhaka and Mumbai and New York and wherever--and I do believe those are getting a decent bit of coverage in the international press--but to want journalists to simply focus on just that and not on the UAE's issues cannot be the right way to go about this, at least in my opinion. Sure, there are a lot of complexities to be explored here, but the instances that these reports showcase do make a case for why these workers should be treated better--regardless of what they may be facing in their home countries. We do have ILO regulations as a standard to go by, and plenty of human rights standards as well--so if we are not abiding by those minimum criteria in Dubai, then journalists are well in their right to criticize it. To say that conditions here are better here than in, say, Dhaka, is just lazy. Surely we need to be better than that.

Finally, if this is indeed an effect of "good old fashioned capitalism," then these news stories are, quite simply, an instance of good old fashioned journalism. (Here I go with that quote that was supposedly said by George Orwell: "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.") I have had a debate about "balance" with my journalism professors before, and so I'm not going into it right now. But pointing out issues--regardless of how comparatively smaller they may be when compared with the rest of the world--is what I guess investigative journalism is meant to do. Balancing these out may be good for stories of this nature, but hardly a necessity for such reports.

Alexander McNabb said...

Hey Aby

Sorry for delay - I too am a tad overstretched both in work and leisure time!

There is a better, more subtle and nuanced story to be told. The Dubai labourers story is something of a trope that gets pushed out all too frequently with little attempt to find that nuanced story.

And in reporting without context, without balance and without even seeking to put the story into any form of perspective, merely going for the big ticket headline, I think the story is actually skewed. Not one word about improvements, not one word about the changes and not one word about the fact that these guys have been coming here for fifty years and still come.

And certainly no attempt to point out that the loan sharks are their countrymen practicing this in their countries of origin, that the 'kafala' system is how the 75% of the population who are expats are managed and certainly not to take a look at a labourer's lot in Swat, Dhaka or Trivandrum.

It's getting better. By ignoring that you're not helping it to continue to do so. A little carrot would go nicely alongside the stick, no?

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