the burj khalifa: capital excess and worker exploitation

by Nancy LaPlante

The Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building was opened with impressive light and sound shows as well as a breath-taking fireworks demonstration. This structural marvel was renamed the Burj Khalifa for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed who had provided an $80 billion bailout for Dubai, the United Arab Emirate state which had been heavily in debt. While the current economic crisis stalls the sucking out of any immediate and enormous profits from this tower of capitalist overindulgence, the brutality in its history of construction puts directly side-by-side the lavish gluttony of the bourgeoisie against the expendable lives of the workers who built it. While there are many incredible details about the Burj Khalifa only a few are named here, followed by a brief tip-of-the-iceberg list of the examples of worker exploitation and their attempts to fight back against their severe exploitation.

The Burj Khalifa in numbers:
• World’s tallest skyscraper at 828m
• Building with the most floors – 160
• Cost US $1.5 billion to build
• World’s fastest elevators at speed of 64 km/h
• 28,261 glass panels on the outside of the building
• Can hold up to 25,000 people at any one time
• Outside fountain system cost US $217 million Illuminated by 6,600 lights and 50 coloured projectors, it is 275 m long and shoots water 150 m into the air, accompanied by a range of classical to contemporary Arabic and world music.
• Office space rents for more than US $43,000 per square metre

The building’s website states that the Burj Dubai is a monument of the can-do spirit of Dubai and International teamwork and is the new guiding beacon of the Middle East. This tower is a beacon for capital to invest and the uber-rich to wallow in luxury as well as a beacon for the working class to travel thousands of miles away from their homes in search of any wage they can forage.

This architectural masterpiece equates to pure misery for the workers who built it:
• Constructed mainly by workers from South Asia (Pakistan,Bangladesh, India, China and Sri Lanka). Travelling to a foreign place in order to be able to house and feed their families hundreds of thousands of workers forgo literally their life for the paltry wages because these paltry wages are better than no wages, and in many cases, no wages as companies withhold pay often for months at a time and due to the heavy debt of repaying recruitment agencies from back home.
• Carpenters earn wages of approximately UK £4.34 per day and labourers earned UK £2.84 per day. The average monthly income of the migrant labourer is $175 per month while the per capita monthly income in Dubai is $2106. Not only were wages disgustingly low tantamount to pure slavery, but the workers owed recruitment agencies for their jobs and it took years to pay them back.
• It is reported that the construction took 22 million man hours. They have had no choice but to surrender to the capitalist system in order to survive, to toil and sweat and give their blood for capital.
• Employers confiscate passports; in addition to wages being stolen from them, the workers even lose their identities and rights to move freely in the world. They are held captive to stay and continue to work rather than being able to return home empty-pocketed and still in debt.
• Migrant Workers numbering higher than the local population are housed in abysmal conditions. One worker was quoted as saying “The latrines are so filthy we cannot use them, we are so disgusted. The roads are full of garbage and waterlogged. Living and moving about here is a great problem. We suffer greatly”.
• There is a shortage of drinking water; workers are frequently getting ill from drinking the dirty water provided.
• Employer-owned labor camps where workers are forced to live frequently do not have electricity or running water.
• Construction workers toil 14 hour workdays with heavy debt and few to no breaks during midday heat.
• Over the years as this tower was being built, the workers struggled a number of times.
• 2004 – Workers protested at the Ministry of Labour only to be oppressed by the police and threatened with mass deportations.
• September 2005 – largest worker protest and strike in United Arab Emirates history.
• March 2006 – Approximately 2,500 workers were waiting for buses to take them back to their living quarters at the end of the day when guards began to harass them. The workers fought back smashing company cars, computer and construction equipment; inflicting approximately $1 million in damage. Workers at the nearby Burj Dubai airport laid down their tools and held a strike in support of these workers. The following day the Burj Dubai workers strike against employer demanding better wages, better medical care and improved treatment from their foremen.
• June 2007 – A worker fell to his death from the 130th floor to the 108th floor.
• October 2007 – Four thousand workers are imprisoned for 6 months and then deported for involvement in a protest demanding better pay and working conditions.
• November 2007 – bridge collapses at a construction site killing 7 and injuring 15 workers
• December 2009 – an Indian family of three committed suicide due to their financial misery in Dubai
• January 2010 – a Sri Lankan hotel employee committed suicide; he had been having problems with company management over his end-of-service agreements and his air ticket back home.

The Burj Khalifa is a notorious example among many of the exploitative system of capitalism, at the heart of it the necessity of the working class to work for wages. The luxury for the rich in this tower was built with the sweat and blood of the working class. While there have been many criticisms of the treatment of the pitifully-paid workers, these do not go far enough. It does not take long to dig to the root of the issue here; capitalism is the system that facilitates the exploitation of workers for profits. As long as there is a constant struggle between capital and labour, a working class resistance ensues. In the case of the Burj Khalifa, this white elephant is a clear example of capitalist exploitation and that its foundation of wage-labour is the offender. With billions unemployed around the world, it is no wonder at all, that millions migrate to any job at all, desperate to eke out a living. Figuratively speaking, even the doormats at this “beacon of the Middle East” are probably worth more than the labour power of these workers. The demands of the workers over the period of building the Burj Khalifa were a spit in the ocean compared to the wealth of the ruling class who financed this project, however, it is vital to consider that these workers were working and living not only in physically deplorable conditions but were at the mercy of their employers who often withheld their pay, held onto their passports and repeatedly threatened deportation; and despite all of this intimidation, the anger of the workers surfaced and exploded. As capital morphs and tyrannizes, so too the working class must connect and fight back against a system that enslaves them to wages.