Dubai skyscraper fire reveals the UAE’s great inequities

February 24, 2015 3:28 pm

Both places were called home by the vast foreign workforce drawn to the . Both caught fire last week.
The similarities end there.
One
blaze was followed around the world: a nearly 80-story skyscraper in
Dubai – named the Torch – being laced early Saturday by wind-driven
flames that jumped from one luxury apartment to the next, raining hot
glass and smoking chunks of masonry onto Dubai Marina and docks with
multimillion-dollar yachts.

Remarkably, the evacuation was swift
and orderly, despite numerous false-alarm fire bells since the tower
opened nearly four years ago as another high-rise haven for well-paid
expat workers and investors. No one was killed, and only a handful of
people suffered smoke-related breathing problems.
The other fire,
about 24 hours earlier, was far removed from the glamour promoted by
the UAE. Sometime early Friday, a blaze broke out in a tire shop in an
industrial corner of Abu Dhabi packed with fix-it garages and
warehouses.

The flames rose, fed by tires and solvents. They soon engulfed a makeshift rooming house upstairs for migrant workers.
Suresh
Kumar, a mechanic from India who lives in the Musaffah industrial zone,
heard the screams. Then silence. He watched as the bodies of 10
laborers were carried out.
“There is no fire safety,” he told the Gulf . “People live cramped in rooms.”
There
is more, however, than just the settings separating the two events.
It’s another window into the parallel worlds for the millions of expat
workers in the UAE and other Gulf states.
One is glossed by a
veneer of privilege and propped up by the belief that life here –
endless malls, tax-free salaries, plentiful domestic help – offers more
than ever possible at home in the West and elsewhere. The other side is
found in places such as Musaffah or the barracks-style camps built to
house workers, the vast majority from South Asia drawn by the hopes of
making enough money to support families back home.
Here, the call
of the Gulf has no gilded charm. It’s small, cinder-block rooms often
packed with bunk beds. It’s being chased away from tourist beaches or
malls by police, or gathering at shabby shopping centers in the desert
to pay jacked-up prices for a phone call home.
To be fair, such
contrasts are hardly unique to the Gulf, particularly in emerging
economic powers such as India and China. But no other place depends as
heavily on low-cost foreign labor. Every bigger-higher-grander “vision” –
a word much in vogue among the UAE’s ruler-builders – literally rests
upon the supply of workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and
elsewhere.
And here is where the fire in Abu Dhabi strikes home.
If
nothing else, the Gulf leaders pay attention to their global image. The
scenes of charred bodies and a makeshift flophouse is certain to bring
another round of outcry from human rights groups, which already have
sharpened their focus on the Gulf with projects such as Abu Dhabi’s
branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and the venues for the
2022 World Cup in Qatar.
A report earlier this month by Human
Rights Watch noted some improvements in labor conditions in the UAE –
including better monitoring of company-run camps – but it repeated
complaints about long-standing practices such as withholding workers’
passports so they cannot change jobs and mass firings and deportations
after threats of strikes or protests.
Last year, the
International Trade Union Confederation urged the United Nations to
investigate the “international scandal” of alleged labor abuses in the
UAE.
UAE authorities have harshly rejected the international
criticism, saying they have made strides on job safety and living
conditions for migrant workers.
But the accounts from the Abu Dhabi fire show the tragic mix of desperate workers and even more desperate surroundings.
More than 100 people were packed into 12 rooms when the fire broke out, said one worker, Mohammed Daulat from Bangladesh.
“I
jumped out of the window and helped other roommates leave, too. This is
how I am alive,” he told the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi.
Among
the dead were two brothers from Chittagong, Bangladesh. Daulat said
their bodies were found holding hands. Others were from Syria, Pakistan
and India, authorities said.
Police arrested the owner of the
building. Those displaced by the fire were cast adrift, looking for an
empty bunk and castoff clothes from friends.
In Dubai, a support
center for the Torch refugees was set up on the 97th floor of a
neighboring luxury building, the Princess Tower. Nearby restaurants
pitched in with free food: pizzas, coffee and warm croissants.

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