Ejo #3 – Various Types of Employment in Dubai

As far as I’m aware there is virtually no unemployment in Dubai.  Probably because it is such a fast growing city and the global economic downturn is yet to have a real impact here.  So there are a multitude of employees in every sector.  You know the stereotype of the construction workers: a dozen men sitting around watching one guy digging the trench?  That’s what it’s like here but everywhere.  We’ve eaten in restaurants where we’ve been the only customers there and there are ten waiters.  You walk into a bookshop and there are six people behind the counter.  At the pharmacist there are eight.  Every store in the mall has a security guard and at least four assistants (even the very small ones) and every single toilet in the malls (and there are scores of them) has a fulltime cleaning attendant.  I’ve walked into a Starbucks and ordered a coffee from five people at once (because they all just turn to look at you and you have no idea who’s supposed to be taking the order).  You get the idea.


The most obvious/flagrant example of this is (naturally) in the construction industry.  There are literally tens of thousands of construction workers here, all imported from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  A lot of them are doing actual construction work but many of them are employed in ‘support’ roles.  And the best support role I’ve seen so far is a guy sporting a broom by the side of the road sweeping up the sand, dust and dirt created from the construction site into a little pile.


And that’s his job.


Sometimes, he’ll (accidentally??) push the pile too close to the road and a car will drive over it and he’ll have to start all over again.  But his job is not to move the pile, or clean up the pile.  His job is simply to make the pile.  And he’s only in charge of his single pile because ten metres down the street there’s another guy making his own pile, thank you very much.  At the allotted time, some other guy, whose support role is to come around and clean up the piles, will do so.


And that’s his job.  All day, every day.


Another great one is also linked to construction sites – and the apartment we’ve got is in a very new area mostly still under construction (in fact it’s the first of eight buildings to go up so cranes and bulldozers are going to be a fact of life for us for years to come).  Picture this: At every road where there is an intersection which construction vehicles are required to use, the workers have set up a (pretty good) system whereby there is a worker sitting at each corner of the intersection, and each worker is connected to the one on their left and the one on their right by a rope (forming a rope ‘square’ around the intersection).  The ropes have little fluorescent flags attached along their length for added visibility.  And they use these ropes in a ‘traffic light’ fashion.  So, if you were driving along the street (theoretically) doing the 40kph speed limit and you came to one of these intersections but there was no tip truck to cross in front
of you, you would simply drive over the rope lying on the ground, wave to the 15 guys standing around and be on your way.  If there was a tractor or a hot, sweaty busload of workers to cross, you’d find yourself subject to the rope being pulled taut across the road in front of you, while the rope that had been the tractor’s ‘red light’ is released and lays flaccid on the road.  Marvellous system.  Once the offending vehicle is through the intersection there is a synchronous lifting and dropping of the appropriate ropes and off you go, again waving to all the guys milling around.


And they do seem to like it when you wave – their faces light up and they always wave back.  This might come from most immigrant workers here being rather invisible, so I guess they enjoy their existence being acknowledged at all – which David and I ALWAYS make an effort to do.  It is rather a depressing fact of life here that these men and women travel far and wide to come to Dubai in the belief that it’s the land of milk and honey and they’ll make a fortune but when they get here that dream is shattered and they get caught in the trap of working 14 hour days six days a week.  They earn barely enough to survive and send what money they can back home to their families which they stay separated from for years.  And they can’t leave until they pay back the recruitment firms who paid for them to come out here in the first place.  They can’t afford housing so they live in labour camps and they can’t afford cars so they get bussed to and from their jobs every morning in old buses with no air conditioning.  It’s not a happy life.


So pretty well every menial job in construction, janitors, maids, nannies, and all but the managerial roles in hospitality are occupied by these immigrants.  And most of them muster up a smile for you, even though they earn less in a month than we do in a single day.  It’s awful and sad and my initial response was to throw money at them – for serving me, for cleaning the toilet after me, for cleaning our apartment (even though the property developers paid for them to come), for delivering our furniture, for assembling it.  In reality though, I realised that if I keep doing that I will send us broke.  And it won’t fix the problem anyway.  I could never pay for them all (even though I would love to).  I can however treat everyone I come across with respect and kindness, and to be honest it is this which has assuaged my general feeling of guilt the most.  It is something to contend with every day.


A story:  I was at a mall the other day (there are malls in Dubai I hear you ask??, why yes, dear friend, this town is known to support a mall or two) and after hours of malling around found myself gravitating to the food court for a bite to eat.  I sat down and ate and observed a young Indian lad of about seventeen, looking very dapper in his janitor’s uniform of grey pants, red shirt, black belt and shoes.  This boy, this young man, had taken such care with his appearance that he looked like he was off to the prom with his childhood sweetheart instead of picking up crap off the floor because people are too ignorant and too lazy to put it in the bins themselves.  His clothes were perfectly pressed with crisp creases down the front of his pants.  His shoes were buffed to shining and his hair was perfectly coiffed, every strand in its place.  And this guy, who probably earns less than 50Dhs a day (2 bottles of water cost more in a restaurant) walked through that food court with more dignity and self-respect than anyone else there.  And he looked so sad, because he just had to know that he would never have the opportunity to do anything better or easier or something that could make him feel good about himself.  And it just broke my heart because I can’t change that for him.  His life is set at seventeen.  It’s devastating being faced with that everywhere you look, and apart from what I’m already doing, I just don’t know how else to cope.  I can’t walk around being devastated all the time but neither do I want to become desensitised to their plight – and that does seem to be the easiest (and most common) method of dealing with the problem.  I want to find a balance where I’m not just supporting a system that treats other human beings as slaves and ignoring the problem. 


On that note, I shall end this ejo with a brief description (by popular demand) of the Arabic hand gesture I referred to in the last post.  And let me add I was the recipient of it whilst out driving again this morning, this time by a man!!


Shape your hand by touching all four fingertips to the tip of your thumb, then point that towards your mouth (about 15cm away) and move it rapidly backwards and forwards.  That’s it.  It looks kind of like the gesture for ‘eating’ or an Italian ‘Mamma Mia’ but I’ve only ever seen it where I would expect to see a raised middle finger (and of course that gesture may get you deported apparently).  I have no idea about the origin of the gesture but perhaps it’s a polite way of saying ‘eat my dust’ because right after they do it, they race off at a million miles an hour and leave you in a cloud of dust.


PS Since I started this ejo a week or so ago there have been lots of redundancies in the real estate/property development fields but most of these people were overpaid expats anyway.  All the current buildings that have commenced construction will continue to go ahead and I can’t really see an end to the multitude of immigrant employees because they’re so damn cheap and there are so many of them.


PPS Thanks to everyone who’s written to me in response to my ejos.  It’s lovely to hear from all my friends and get updates of life back home.



  1. I stumbled on your “ejo” yesterday and I just want to say I enjoyed them. The way you write is light and with humor so I find it entertaining and educational as well.

    I also want to comment on the gesture you have mentioned. It’s not a bad gesture at all… it actually means various degrees of “wait”… from “relax, slow down” to “wtf are you in a hurry for”.

    I think the more offending gesture I’ve seen is the where-is-your-brain kind where the angry person touches his/her temple similar to a salute…only to the temple instead of the forehead.

    Anyway, looking forward to reading more of your adventures in Dubai.


    1. Hi Minabey, thanks for your comments. You know, I did eventually work out that the gesture meant something along of the lines of ‘be patient’ but as you can imagine when I first got here I had no idea what it meant!! I still think it’s funny that people do the gesture when it is THEM that are cutting you off – but you get used to it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully I can keep entertaining, and perhaps educating as well!

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