Alcatraz on the Gulf

Article 21 Aug 2006 admin

BP exploits migrant workers in the Emirates, by Mafiwasta – This article was first published in Platform’s Carbon Web Newsletter Issue 5.

In the United Arab Emirates, unrestrained capitalism operates without the tiresome inconveniences of democratic institutions and media intrusion. Not surprisingly the world’s multinationals have flocked to its shores, lured by low set-up costs, tax-breaks and flimsy, unenforceable labour laws – what the CBI would no doubt call a ‘business-friendly environment’.

There is of course a downside to this free-marketeering, and it is felt most keenly by the south Asian workers whose labour has built the country.

These migrant workers, who number over a million, are treated as cheap and expendable. Suicide is commonplace, misery is pervasive and escape is usually impossible.

Despite efforts to diversify its economy, oil still accounts for the majority of government revenue. The UAE contains the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, almost all of it in Abu Dhabi.

The current boom, which has seen the UAE’s economic growth outstrip China’s, has taken place only in the last decade, but one company has been there from the very start. It was there in 1953 when oil was first discovered, it was there when the UAE won its independence from the British in 1972, and it’s there now, holding between 10 and 15% shareholdings in two of Abu Dhabi’s three main upstream oil operating companies, ADMA-OPCO and ADGAS, and also in LNG company ADCO.

Step forward our very own BP, which obtains more than 5% of its total oil production from Abu Dhabi. And this may come as a shock, but they haven’t exactly been the standard-bearer for workers’ rights.

ADMA-OPCO and ADGAS operate from Das Island, a small oil and gas processing facility in the Persian Gulf, 180km north-west of Abu Dhabi. It is home to approximately three thousand workers, the majority of whom are unskilled or semi-skilled South Asians. The island has a capacity of 800,000 barrels of oil a day, about a third of UAE’s total production. Its longer-term residents haven’t yet taken to calling it Alcatraz, but if they’d seen the film, they surely would.

Parallels with prison life are striking.

Escape is impossible: despite being illegal, the confiscation of workers’ passports is common practice in the UAE. Contractors at BP sites confiscate their lower-income employees’ passports as a matter of course.

Enforced, often unpaid labour: a typical worker on Das Island can expect to earn around 30 pence an hour for a 70 to 80 hour week, there are frequent reports of unpaid overtime and workers have no access to either trade unions or the UAE Ministry of Labour. (Comparison with prison is being unkind to Her Majesty’s prison service, which is legally required to pay its inmates £2.50/hour. Furthermore, UK inmates are rarely required to work in temperatures exceeding 45 degrees, nor are they subjected to dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulphide.)

In many ways, you’d be better off in jail in the UK, than working for BP contractors in the UAE. You’d certainly get to see your family more often.

BP’s response to this was a fact-finding phone call to find out if we really knew what we were talking about. “You realise we have a very limited sphere of influence in the UAE” said a very polite voice. The sharp intake of breath when I informed him, in an equally polite voice, that the general manager of ADMA-OPCO was actually a BP secondee suggested he was the one who didn’t know what he was talking about.

The Mafiwasta campaign, one of whose founder members was an oil contractworker in the UAE, was set up two years ago to highlight the exploitation of the country’s migrant workers. We are calling on BP to initiate an investigation into working practices at its sites, and on the government of the UAE to sign up to International Labour Organisation (ILO) core conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining.


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