Last night’s Panorama saw journalist and reporter Ben Anderson going undercover in the millionaires’ playground of Dubai to look at what goes on behind the scenes of the luxury developments that are endorsed by celebrities such as Jamie Oliver, Michael Owen, Freddie Flintoff, Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Sam Torrance.
In a country that penalises journalists who report stories that negatively reflect the economy, or insult the government, with massive fines and in the past, even imprisonment, Ben had to maintain a low profile, hence his undercover filming and posing as a potential buyer. And what he discovered there were migrant workers in their thousands living in conditions that we wouldn’t keep a dog in, and if we did, we’d be fined.
In recent years, Dubai has become synonymous with luxury and the dream of owning a piece of that luxury lifestyle has been sold to millions of property buyers around the world, but what they don’t see in the glossy brochures are the truly appalling lives of those who are building ‘the dream’.
Posing as a potential buyer, Ben met with a sales representative from property development company, The First Group, and she was quick to allay his concerns about the wellbeing of the company’s migrant employees.
“It’s much more difficult to earn some money in Pakistan or India, so people actually save by living for free in proper housing, eating for free in the canteen, using the transport and sending something to their families.”
However, when Anderson spoke with some of the construction workers employed by The First Group’s sub-contractors, he discovered the reality was very different. They live in a cramped and unsanitary shanty town-style camp which resembles a refugee camp in the third world more than accommodation in the world’s richest ‘playground’.
The workers board a fleet of coaches at 5am which take them on the hour long journey to the building site they work on and where they work a full 12 hour day, then the coaches take them back ‘home’. Home is prison-esque blocks where the workers have had to construct a set of stepping stones in order to avoid walking through the raw sewage that flows freely through their camp.
Ben investigated the toilet and shower blocks and found no running water meant that the toilets couldn’t be flushed and the workers couldn’t wash. He was literally gagging as he walked through them with his hidden camera and we saw for ourselves that there were literally piles of faeces everywhere.
Then Ben moved onto the ‘kitchen’ area where the workers had to cook their own food after their 12 hour day – which was actually 14 if you include travel time – and these consisted of about 50 cooking rings… and that was it.
And what do these men get paid for long hot hours of work followed by living in conditions so horrendous, as I said, we wouldn’t keep our pets in? Between £120 and £153 per month; not per week, per month, and one company paid around 30p per hour for overtime. It was truly shocking.
The workers were lured to Dubai because they were promised ‘good money’ by recruitment agencies but the truth is, many were surviving on a diet of mashed potatoes and lentils and even at that, still had little or no money to send back to their families.
But this story isn’t peculiar to First Group; Ben also saw the workers for a company called Arabtec – one of the biggest construction companies in Saudi Arabia – were suffering the same fate. One Arabtec worker, who earned just £140 a month for a six-day week, told Ben that his family at home had no idea about the reality of his situation.
“We haven’t told them because, if we do, our wives and our children will start crying, so we have told them we’re doing well,” he said.
The majority of the workers refused to talk to Ben for fear of reprisal from their employers and those who were brave enough, did so anonymously.
Ben also investigated why no controls and regulations were being enforced regarding these terrible living conditions and found that in fact the companies he looked into had often been fined for allowing their staff to live in such appalling squalor but the standard reply to Ben’s enquiries about it was that it was the workers themselves who don’t adhere to any standards of hygiene and sanitation.
Arabtec said it did not accept that there were unsanitary conditions at any of its camps’ toilets and as mentioned, it blamed the workers, saying, “Despite training, their standards of cleanliness and hygiene are not up to your or our standards” and they claimed that the toilet block Ben had filmed in may have been a block that was “meant to be closed.” They further claimed that the workers had broken in and used it, though Ben stated he saw no sign of any forced entry.
Ben and the Panorama team contacted Jamie Oliver regarding his endorsement of one of the companies – having pointed out that Jamie campaigns about the living conditions of chickens who frankly, have it kinda easy compared to these workers – and in a statement to Panorama, Jamie Oliver Enterprises said they were “disturbed” by the issues raised.
“When we started work with our partner in Dubai, we were informed of their strict contractual guidelines which are in place with sub-developers to protect the rights of migrant workers and provide for good living and working conditions.
“While we are satisfied that the sub-contractors employed directly by our partner to work on Jamie Oliver projects meet the regulatory requirements and are fair, we have been given further assurances that the claims made by employees working on a sub-developer’s project will be investigated.”
Panorama has also been told that Jamie Oliver now wants to come up with “more accurate wording” to describe his business relationship with Jumeirah Golf Estates and in the meantime, the celebrity chef’s name has been removed from the list of ambassadors on the company’s website, so good on you Jamie.
It was Panorama at its best last night and kudos to Ben for risking his own liberty to investigate the dreadful plight of these men, many of whom had actually paid the employment agencies who hired them around £2,000 for the ‘privilege’ of working in Dubai.
It was nitty-gritty journalism and a far cry from the Dubai the brochures and glitzy ads would have us believe, so let’s hope that now Dubai’s dirty little secret is out, something will be done to help these hard working, poverty stricken men who, if they’re lucky, won’t die of cholera before that happens.