As a child, inequality stared me in the face. Quite literally. I'd see the shallow, sunken eyes of these men frame their gaunt and malnourished faces wherever I went.
The UAE and countries surrounding it are build entirely through imported labor from countries like Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These men pay brokers to get these jobs in the countries like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar and upon arrival are met with the stark reality which will become their lives over the years. As a child in the 90's and early 2000s, these men were visible everywhere. In the souks and bazaars of old Dubai and in the malls which they, themselves had built. Soon though, the government would impose harsh restrictions on where and how these men could travel, banning them from the shopping centres and public places where they people-watched, with no money for anything else.
They were quickly made unwelcome on public transport and their only mode of transport - the bicycle - was heavily taxed with permits going for $75 a piece, more money than they could hope to save when their labor was being undervalued and most, if not all their money was being sent home to support their families. By now, you have probably seen the news coverage of human rights abuses surrounding the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The Guardian reports that as many as 6500 men have died building the stadiums that will host the cup. They live in work camps, held together with shit and broken tiles, with overflowing toilets, no showers and filthy kitchens not worthy of a place in the modern world, least of all in some of the world's richest countries. In Dubai, a camp well-known for its atrocities is named "Sonapur" mockingly meaning The City of Gold. Men are transported to and fro in un-airconditioned buses, funnelled from camp to worksite in the 50 degree heat.
A particular memory involving one of these buses is one I will never shake. On the evening of my thirteenth birthday, while returning home from an evening out with my mother in her two-door 4x4 Isuzu, a driver changing lanes on a dark, industrial road on the outskirts of the city clipped us as he darted in and out of lanes and sent us into a tailspin. The next thing I knew, I awoke upside down with my mother unconscious in a car flipped over in the median of an empty road. As blood rushed to my head, I felt the next wave of unconsciousness come about as I tried to wake my mother, whose airbag had deployed while mine had not. Still clipped into my seatbelt, I began to scream and rock the upside down car as much as my small frame would allow but quickly felt my energy drain. The last thing I saw before I blacked out for the last time was one of those rundown buses full of migrant workers, with their arms and heads hanging out the window, taking in the cool night breeze and their suddenly howling alarm as they realized we were trapped.
The busload of men poured into my side of the car, calling "beti, beti!", "daughter, daughter!" as they flipped the car over and brought us right side up again. They clamoured to get us out of the car, bringing us water, calling an ambulance. Their words came out jumbled in a mix of Bengali, Hindi, Nepali and even Chinese as I raced over to my mom who had also come to. Later, I'd hear from the doctors who fit me for a neck and back brace that the impact of both the collision and car reorientation fractured part of my vertebrae. Some men continued to buzz around us, checking every so often if we were okay. Others sat in the grassy median, insisting on waiting with us until the ambulance arrived. When it finally did, twenty minutes later, they mumbled goodbyes alongside common Hindu and Muslim blessings before once again boarding their bus to the City of Gold, or one just like it.
Quickly though, their humanity and their faces faded from memory as we returned to our place in the chaotic ecosystem of the UAE. As Indian expatriates there, one quickly becomes aware of the mental and sociological gymnastics involved in justifying slave labor. Having grown up well-off yet extremely middle class, we still felt the sting of racism and the lack of social standing we, by association, had because so much labor was being imported from our country of origin. The governments of these countries impose the social hierarchies based on many things, but chief among them is race and its ties to class.
As middle class brown expatriates, you become acutely aware that in order to retain the small semblance of social rank and the minuscule freedoms you are privy to, you have no choice but to turn a blind eye to the everyday abuses that you are faced with on a daily basis. And, if you live there long enough, you realize you are fighting a war on so many fronts that at some point, you too, have gone numb to the stories of thousands of migrants who die every summer in the unbearable heat, acting as traffic flaggers, paving roads and filling your gas.
As you go from airconditioned house, to airconditioned car to airconditioned office and nightclub and restaurant and bar, dodging the gruelling workdays and the crushing expense of living there, you eventually come to the conclusion that life in these countries is tough enough without you having to face the injustice of the treatment of your countrymen and if not that, then fellow humans. After all, isn't it enough to bear that you are paid based on your race and passport, that your passport is held by your employer, that you too must deal with harsh bosses and business owners in a country so bent on extracting every breath you have?
Since moving to Canada in 2012, I've seen annual drives for shoeboxes for kids in developing countries, often out of churches and neighbourhood associations. It was a comforting and familiar sight to me. As a child and young adult, I patted myself on the back as I packed shoeboxes full of hygiene items for the men of these sprawling work camps. Men, who, despite working for billionaires on projects that would earn those countries recognition the world over, could barely afford toothpaste and soap to rid themselves of the blood, sweat and tears they lost on the rafters of a skyscraper that day. Some years, we would have boxes leftover and we'd redistribute them to those who needed it most. It wasn't a miscount, however, some men choose the ultimate escape from the kafala system of slave labor - they jump.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver - FIFA Qatar 22
Human Rights Watch - Qatar World Cup
The Guardian - 6500 Migrant Workers Die Building FIFA stadiums