As the global financial crisis reached the United Arab Emirates media reports focused on the plight of Dubai's high-paid Western expatriates, but for the city's invisible majority, who played a key role in the six-year boom that turned sand dunes into a glittering metropolis, the crisis has had far worse consequences.
Over the years workers from poor countries like Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Egypt and Lebanon have flocked to Dubai to provide the cheap manpower fueling the booming economy and construction business.
The property and services industries demanded all kinds of workers from cleaners, waiters, taxi drivers and gardeners to skilled and unskilled builders and laborers. But as business slowed and financing dried up, demand has fallen.
After toiling long days to build the skyscrapers and hot spots that have put Dubai on the map, the city's low-paid laborers are rapidly being laid off as cranes grind to a halt with companies running short on business and money.
"Many companies are closing their business, two out of five projects have already been cancelled and we have already sent 1,300 laborers home since last month," Hayri Taban, assistant camp boss at the Bin Belaila Baytur labor camp, told Al Arabiya, adding that 50-70 laborers were being sent home daily.
The camp, located on a dusty road not far from the trendy Ibn Battuta Mall, is home to some 5,300 laborers working on projects including the world's tallest tower, Burj Dubai, and the Silver tower, an office building worth an estimated $122 million.
Up to 45 percent of construction workers could be laid off this year as private sector projects in the UAE are delayed or cancelled, a member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce board of directors, Khalfan al-Kaabi, said in December.
Many companies are closing their business, two out five projects have already been cancelled and we have already sent 1,300 laborers home since last month
Hayri Taban, assistant camp boss
An estimated $260 billion of real estate projects are reported to have been delayed or shelved but official figures on workers being laid off were unavailable because the process is not usually done "formally," labor attaché at the Bangladeshi embassy, Monir al-Zaman, was quoted by AFP as saying.
Laborers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, make up nearly 50 percent of the UAE's population of almost five million. They are among the hardest hit by the crisis, working under perilous conditions in scorching heat to earn as little as AED 900 ($250) a month.
The Indian embassy is said to be anticipating an exodus, with 20,000 seats on flights to India “bulk-booked” for next month, India's The Hindu newspaper reported but which a Kerala-based center later denied.
As 53 percent of Dubai's construction projects were put on hold, laid-off workers were either flying back home or redeploying to work on projects in other Gulf countries, Indian Consul General in Dubai, Venu Rajamony, said.
Wasted life savings
Employees who lose their job in the UAE automatically have their visa cancelled and are given 30 days to leave. Defaulting on debt or bouncing a check is punishable with jail time, causing panic amongst jobless expatriates.
Reports of hundreds of cars left abandoned at the airport with keys in the ignition and maxed-out credit cards strewn in the glove compartment have become a popular anecdote for the Western expatriates forced to return home after losing their jobs or being made redundant.
But for the thousands of blue-collar workers, going home is not that simple and often means a waste of live savings and the prospect of severe poverty.
They just called us to the head office and fired us
Alex Wanjohi, cook
“I sold our land and took loans in the village to come here,” the Hindu quoted Imran Hassan, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi laborer, as saying. “I paid the agent £2,000 to bring me. He said I would earn AED 1,500 (about $400) a month, but we are paid AED 572 ($155). When I return people in the village will want their money but I have none.”
Alex Wanjohi, a 25-year-old Kenyan, worked as a cook in a restaurant located in the chic Dubai Marina area for 10 months before he was summoned to the head office—with hundreds of other employees—and told he had been fired.
"They just called us to the head office and fired us," he told Al Arabiya.
Wanjohi said his residency visa had still not been cancelled because he had not agreed to the termination terms and said the company still owes him money, which they are refusing to pay.
Under UAE law, workers laid off must be paid 21 days' salary for each of the first five years worked and a month's salary for every year after that.
"I am looking for another job but I don’t know what is going to happen, it is getting very hard to survive" he said, adding that the situation in his home country was worse.
"If I can't find a job I will just go home and come back after six months," he said, referring to the period most people who have their visas cancelled have to wait before they can return.
A Filipino waiter who works at a restaurant in Dubai's Mall of the Emirates told Al Arabiya he was worried that he would be laid off because he had spent all of his savings.
"My wife was fired three months ago and I am very worried that I will be next," said the waiter in his mid-thirties, who asked to remain unnamed. He said he does not want to go back to the Philippines because "there are no jobs and I don’t even have any savings left to get home."
There are no jobs and I don’t even have any savings left to get home