Dark Side of Dubai's Boomtown

Dr. Anwar Gargash, the one and only government official provided to speak with 20/20, says Dubai and the sheikh are doing the best they can.

Dr. Anwar Gargash: I have been to more than one labor camp in Sonapur.

Brian Ross: Would you want to live that way?

Dr. Anwar Gargash: I think that some that are bad and some that are not so bad.

Brian Ross: We were at camps this week that are described as pretty good, and they're quite squalid.

Dr. Anwar Gargash: Okay.

Brian Ross: 8, 12 men in a room, working 12 hour days.

Dr. Anwar Gargash: Okay.

Brian Ross: Is Dubai proud of that?

Dr. Anwar Gargash: No, of course not.

Brian Ross: Then why do you allow it to continue?

Dr. Anwar Gargash: Because, the pace of growth has outstripped our ability. I think like any other city, any other country, we, of course, have growing pains.

Pains being felt by these men, trapped in indentured servitude.

They told us they were deeply in debt because they were forced to pay recruiters in their home countries large fees to get their jobs in Dubai, something that is supposed to be illegal.

And once here, they said, they found they would be making only half the wages they had been promised.

Workers: 600, 600 dirhams, about $163 dollars, a month. On average, less than a dollar an hour.

And even that, Human Rights Watch found, is routinely withheld months at a time.

Sarah Leah: It's considered a way to make sure your worker doesn't run away so you kind of owe him money to keep him on a short leash.

The work in Dubai goes on day and night, usually two, twelve hour shifts, six days a week. A pace Human Rights Watch says has led to a huge death toll.

Hadi Ghaemi: Hundreds are dying, especially falling from these high rises every year.

Brian Ross: You are saying hundreds are dying?

Hadi Ghaemi: Hundreds are dying.

And under the law in Dubai and the entire United Arab Emirates, there are no unions allowed, strikes are illegal, strikers can be fired and sent home.

Sarah Leah: So you basically, you better shut up and do your work and not complain.

But earlier this year, at the site of what will be the world's tallest building, workers went on strike anyway, for two days.

It was a rare, bold protest in front of the building Sheikh Mohamed wants to be the best building ever built by man.

The man in charge says he warned the contractors to improve conditions at the site, but that still, some of the strike ringleaders may have been fired for misbehaving.

Mohammed Ali Alabbar: There's one or two or three got fired because of that, I'm not aware, I'm not really aware of that.

Brian Ross: Is that fair?

Mohammed Ali Alabbar: Well, you know, what Brian, I could lose my job tomorrow, as well.

Brian Ross: You're not making four dollars a day.

Mohammed Ali Alabbar: Well, basically anyone, any level of job who can also get fired if they don't behave.

While Sheikh Mohamed has been busy with his horses and his skyscrapers and his fantasy islands, Human Rights Watch says he and the government of the United Arab Emirates have done little or nothing to protect workers rights.

Brian Ross: You talk about setting high standards. Where are the high standards for the workers?

Dr. Anwar Gargash: We realize very well that we are actually in a state of transition. So to come and say we have a problem, of course we do.

Brian Ross: As it stands today, are they receiving fair treatment?

Dr. Anwar Gargash: I think we have problem. I think we have a problem

Brian Ross: You admit it.

Dr. Anwar Gargash: I think we have a problem, but it's not like we're not doing anything about it.

In fact, just days after we left Dubai, the royal public relations machine was in high-gear, announcing new efforts to enforce labor laws and improve conditions at labor camps.

At long last Dubai's impoverished workers may finally be getting the same attention as the Sheikh's skyscrapers and famed racehorses.

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