There are a lot of awful places in the world, if what we mean by awful is offensive to Western standards of people with Western standards of living. If you have a US income, even a very average one (and on the whole travelers tend to be better off than non-travelers), then seeing comparative extreme poverty is tough.
Isn’t this awful! It shouldn’t be this way!
And hearing stories about rights abuses is hard, too. Child labor was common in the U.S. and other Western nations until standards of living were higher, automation also replaced the least-skilled labor. Laws play a role here, although they generally lagged the economic reality on the ground.
Many countries with “visible” poverty have a huge gap in standards of living, whereby you have the really rich and the really poor, without much of a middle class.
But I don’t think there’s anywhere I’ve been where it’s as apparent and depressing as in the UAE.
We travel internationally in part to see different cultures, and for me, at least, I’m typically left with a positive impression.
This is hard to explain, but when I go to India and see the poverty there, I don’t say “wow, I feel so bad for them,” but rather think “wow, it’s amazing how happy they are, despite lacking so many of the things that we consider important in the US.”
I actually have the exact opposite reaction.
The first time I visited India I visited Mumbai, and hired a guide that himself was a street kid, was taken in by a Jesuit, and when his mentor died he was left a used Toyota van which allowed him to drive tourists.
We certainly saw the standard sights of Mumbai, like Ghandi’s home and the Taj Palace hotel.
He guided us as to which street food a Western stomach could eat, and what to avoid.
But he didn’t sanitize the trip. We saw the world’s largest hand laundry. We saw beggars and street kids. I never understood how so many of them could be missing limbs, and he explained that the limbs are taken off on purpose because that makes them more effective beggars. Their economic value increases the more disabled they become.
I was shocked at the slums, although at the same time I marveled at the telecommunications they featured. There was TV, there was electricity, mostly jury rigged.
Mumbai’s zoning laws are draconian, and property laws restrictive, you cannot just ‘build up’ despite massive growth. So the cost of a home is prohibitive. A worker with a good job — and there were relatively well-paid workers at my hotel living in slums immediately outside the hotels’ gates — could commute several hours each way each day, or live near work (they work very long hours). They could afford local lodging but it would take up most of their pay. The slums, which wouldn’t have to exist to the same extent with better, less bureaucratic laws, are the reaction of workers who want to save money and oftentimes send some home to their families outside the city.
I sat for hours in my room, in the darkness and in silence, after that first day seeing Mumbai. I was deeply affected by it. Lucky marvels at how happy with life people seem, and that’s a fantastic perspective. It sure helps make my own first world problems seem small.
There’s certainly much greater poverty in the world than in the UAE, and much tougher conditions than those experienced by guest workers there.
I’ve seen extreme poverty – without having spent extensive time in Africa, so in Cambodia, and in rural Thailand, for instance.
Thai villages can be in beautiful settings, but they don’t feature the sort of construction that UAE guest workers enjoy.
I remember being struck by a home built out of wooden boxes, leftover from US aid shipments.
When I think of this, I find it hard to rate the UAE as one of the worst places in the world even as I can have sympathy for guest workers here.
There’s little doubt that:
- Working conditions are tough. Long hours, maybe 16 hour days, 7 days a week.
- There are no meaningful political rights for guest workers.
- Employers take away passports, this means someone is essentially trapped while they’re there.
- Islamic law can be imposed, from a Western perspective (that I share!) very unfairly. Think of stories of Western women working in hotels being drugged and then raped and then jailed for having sex outside of marriage.
I think we can separate out a couple of things though. Limited rights are a real problem. It is one strand of many that potentially makes the region a powder keg. That won’t appear in literature and surveys until it’s already become apparent, much along the lines of Timur Kuran’s work.
It’s a terrible practice that a company, investing in the travel and training costs bringing a guest worker over, gets to treat the individual as indentured by taking their passport.
But if you’re just talking about working conditions, 16 hour days 7 days a week without family. That’s a lonely existence for sure. But there is a reason that people do that. It’s to escape places like India and Pakistan.
Revealed preference is that, for many, those places are worse. And there’s opportunity to make money, save money, support your family, to be had in the UAE in a way that for many there isn’t in their home countries.
They miss their families, they cannot wait to go back. And we can sympathize with them. We can wish for political rights. Yet over and over this is chosen as a less bad option.
Since wishing won’t make it so, I think we have to do a comparative analysis. For the average male guest worker at a minimum, they think their life will be better working in these conditions than not.
And so while Lucky feels ‘great sadness’ for the plight of the workers (a good heart for sure), I find their very existence uplifting. They’ve gotten out of worse conditions. They can earn a much better living. They are driven, they are strivers, they are overcoming some of the worst conditions humanity faces by choosing this life.
We live in a world of second bests. Much of what we’ve come to appreciate is relatively low, and limited to a small portion of the world’s population. But it spreads. One can be poor in the United States while having a car, a color television, and there’s even a government program to assist with access to a mobile phone. It’s fantastic that we can be defining poverty up but it also can skew our perspective on the rest of world, often behind us and behind Western Europe in these advances.
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