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Originally published October 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 29, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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South Asian workers strike in Dubai

Thousands of South Asian construction workers went on strike Sunday over harsh working conditions in the latest threat to a spectacular...

The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Thousands of South Asian construction workers went on strike Sunday over harsh working conditions in the latest threat to a spectacular building boom already endangered by a falling currency and labor shortage.

While laborers have long complained about working conditions in this Gulf city known for its avant-garde skyscrapers, luxury dwellings and archipelagoes of artificial islands, their recent action comes as contractors are struggling to find workers to complete their ambitious projects.

Dubai is home to the world's tallest building — the Burj Dubai, expected to be completed in 2008 — and the first Armani luxury hotel. Authorities report an annual average growth rate of 12 percent over the past decade, largely driven by construction.

The boom has been attributed to plentiful investment from oil-rich neighbors and armies of nonunionized South Asian workers whose fear of deportation, until recently, kept them from voicing discontent over low wages.

"The cost of living here has increased so much in the past two years that I cannot survive with my salary," said Rajesh Kumar, a 24-year-old worker from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh who earns $149 a month.

The laborers ignored the threat of deportation and refused to go to work, staging protests at a labor camp in Dubai's Jebel Ali Industrial Zone and on a construction site in Al Qusais residential neighborhood.

They demanded pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites. On Saturday, workers threw stones at the riot police and damaged police cars.

In June, the government offered, no questions asked, free one-way plane tickets to illegal workers hoping to leave. They have since been swamped by 280,000 workers.

A booming economy in India also means that many there no longer see the need to travel to Dubai and the Gulf, said Bernard Raj, managing director of the Dubai-based Keith International, which supplies Indian workers.

With the usual labor markets like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka drying up, labor companies are turning to less traditional places like Tibet and North Korea.

At the root of the problem is the Emirati Dirham's close connection to the U.S. dollar, which has plummeted in value, further decreasing laborers' already low salaries.

While Mohammed al-Shaiba, a UAE-based labor analyst, criticized the strikes, saying they could only harm an economy gripped by a labor shortage, he acknowledged that the government had to do something.

"Now it's the right time to set a minimum wage," he said, adding that government should make companies pay workers at least $272 a month.

"If they allow a strike today, tomorrow there will be another one," he added.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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