Photo Essay: Sonapur – Dubai’s City of Gold, by Matilde Gattoni

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Sonapur – Dubai’s City of Gold

There are three different Dubais, the expats, the Emiratis, headed by Sheikh Mohammed, and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden from plain view. Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks. Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means “City of Gold”. As soon as the workers arrive at Dubai airport, their passport are taken from him by the construction companies. They work 14-hour days in the desert heat for 500 dirhams a month (100US$). The water delivered to the camp isn’t properly desalinated.

Since the recession hit, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat.

There’s a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they’re not reported. They’re described as ‘accidents’. Even then, their families aren’t free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a “cover-up of the true extent” of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone.

Photographer: Matilde Gattoni

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Comments 30

  1. I must admit that dubai has improved a lot in this regard, i would encourage an updated post with new images. i have friends who audit the standard of livings for the labour camps in abu dhabi and dubai. it’s promising. come see it your self.

  2. The conditions of exploitation in Dubai (and now Qatar) are so atrocious and so well-known, why is there no move to boycott Airlines such as Emirates, Qatar and (perhaps) Etihad?

  3. It is TRUE. The country is a death camp for the laborers who are exploited. I was there and have seen it all. I had better conditions to manage with a Dutch employer and a good company to work with in the FMCG industry. However, I witnessed these incidences and could do nothing about them. The laws do not allow you to do that. The only ones who matter are the sheikhs that are worthless and inhuman. The others simply follow them like goats being led to slaughter. Human rights do not exist just like water. Johaan Hari has given a good explanation about this in his article. Forget Sonpur, take a look at a camp located just off Al Wahda street Sharjah or the camps in Mussafah, Abu Dhabi and the truth will be even more evident. Spurious wants proof? Take a close look in the country mate, you will find enough to hang yourselves.

  4. 1 month a go in January 26 there was a news on papers that a visa criminal group has been arrested which given 55 resident visa to the people who were black listed before or presented fake education documents. Accidentally I came a cross to few of these 55 people ( 26 in jail and other out of the country afraid to come in to be arrested at airport) . I could locate 5 of them, all Iranians, non of them black listed or fake documented. They had visas in different occasions but nothing illegal. 3 of them were arrested in airport and kept in jail for 2 months ( till now even) without any court, reasoning, etc.. They are all reputable people, good educations and track record. I wonder what is the case but news on paper was so lie, by big names in governments saying those lies. I couldn’t believe myself, completely innocent people in jail or baned. It seems story is different by government side and they found some high ranked corruption about visa. Innocent people in jail because of ” something wrong in visa” but their Local sponsors who gave them these visa and even some charge them money are free!! I now started to write to human right and their government. Is there anybody can help me to help these people. They are in jail but didn’t do anything wrong, they are loosing their reputation, families, etc.. For nothing. Really Haram and Shame.

  5. Sheer exploitation. Mordern day slavery. These workers are paid a pittance and work long hours with out any over time payments,they can not protest since their pasports have been taken away by their employers and if they persists with their protest then fake police cases are filed against them and eventually deported with out any back salary payments. I wonder what human rights org. has to say in this matter.

  6. I have heard from an expat who lived in Dubai for several years that the official weather forecasts will never be above 50C/122F (regardless if the actual temperature exceeds this), because by law they are supposed to then allow construction workers a day off. And, of course, they want to keep the workers working. I have no way to confirm this, but if it is true, it is a sad footnote to this situation.

  7. @Doug – Most of those who came to work in these camps were told quite a different story about the working conditions before they were brought here. They were promised much higher pay, far better working conditions, leave/holidays and so on. But the moment you set foot in Dubai, the passports are confiscated by the agents and then there is absolutely no recourse to law because the legal system in Dubai will completely ignore the rights of these poor people. Read Johann Hari’s report about this in the Independent:

    The Indian government and the south asian governments don’t give a sh*t for these poor people who are completely abandoned.

  8. I know people stuck there. They have no way of getting out. Passports are not returned no matter what. Forget about leaves/holidays unless you are extremely lucky – and even then, probably a week every couple years. This is pure slavery. I will not set foot in Dubai… EVER!

  9. Where’s the evidence, can you link to some sort of news article? And these pictures don’t look that bad…

    I am not saying this is not happening, just where’s the proof?

    1. What kind of evidence are you asking for? Do you want proof about how their passports were taken away? proof that they did not get paid? do you need proof about how some of the guys committed suicide and were just reported as accidents? Geez… Most of the worst news never make it on print especially if they are against a very rich government. The only time a big news comes out is when an equally powerful entity back it up of if the news won’t hurt any powerful man’s image.

  10. a few years ago, I really wanted to go to visit Dubai. After reading this and countless other articles, there’s no way in hell I will EVER set foot there. Thanks for this informative article….well done!

  11. Im not saying that it is humane to treat these people as sub-human, but my question is; Were they forced to work here or did they willingly travel to work? If they willingly traveled to work, or sought this work, what were their conditions like before they started working there?

    1. Many of these people are lied to. They are told that their conditions will be better when they get there. They are told that they will be paid higher wages then what they really get. They tell 500 to come for every 10 jobs and then they have a reverse auction to see who will work for the cheapest amount of money. The people will then work because all they want to do is get enough money to return home. The same thing happened in California USA in the 1930’s. Watch or read ‘Grapes of Wrath’.

  12. Thank You for bringing light to the plight of these workers (modern day slaves). The Emiratis view them as sub-humans and treat them worse than their camels and horses. Hopefully your work will continue to shed light on this problem in the UAE.

    There is a charity called ‘Helping Hands’ that makes care packages for these workers. The best way to help is to raise awareness and contribute to such worthy causes.

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