Barely there- Bare life

An interesting example of Agamben’s bare life- life excluded from law/ politics is the situation that is occurring in modern day United Arab Emirate (U.A.E). The U.A.E is glamorized for its grandiose lifestyle and opulent infrastructure which towers over the desert for miles. In stark contrast, migrant workers and the maltreatment they receive is hidden from the world. Workers live in deplorable, overcrowded rooms, their passports are stripped from them and wages are not paid. Migrant workers in Dubai are more like modern day slaves who are subject to exclusion from the legal and political spheres.

In my opinion, Dubai is a perfect example of corporate corruption at its best. Companies that provide housing for the migrant worker cut costs so as to provide bare minimum necessities. In the documentary ‘Slaves of Dubai’ (2009), the bathroom facilities of one housing camp were so overrun with human sewage and water that workers created a stepping stone pathway to access their sleeping quarters; these two areas were right next to one another. Furthermore, the blame for the deplorable living conditions is cast down to individual workers themselves as the company’s contend that because the migrant workers come from developing countries, they bring with them unhygienic practices.

What is appalling is that the migrant workers are afraid to publically speak out against these deplorable conditions because the companies that have hired camp site managers who do not allow outsiders into the camp. According to Foucault, this is would be the use of disciplinary power whereby, employees are constantly monitored and they are kept silent by the fear of losing their liberties; in this case the liberties they may lose are their freedom, their wages and jobs. There is resistance to the atrocious working and living conditions migrant workers are subject to. In 2006 migrant workers, working on the Burj Dubai protested their living conditions and mistreatment by company officials. Workers smashed cars and offices at the project site. The protest was quickly dispelled by the police and the migrant workers went back to work. In 2006, presumably after the protest the U.A.E government said that they would allow for unionization of labourers. It would seem far-fetched that the U.A.E would implement unions especially when other rules/regulations are not adhered to. For example, there was a rule that construction workers would not be permitted to work if temperatures reached fifty degrees; ironically, officially that year the temperature never reached that high.

The Kafala sponsorship programme “allocates disproportionate power to sponsors and employers in determining the legal residence of workers…employers are given almost total control over migrant workers’ pay, living conditions, nutrition, capacity to change employment and their ability to return home”. Essentially companies take the passports of migrant workers when they arrive to Dubai so that migrant workers will pay back debt which is owed to the company. However, with a wage of U.S $175-220 per month, workers are not able to repay their debt or go home.

Adding to the notion that migrant workers are homo sacer is that migrant workers cannot properly access the legal system in the U.A.E. The court proceedings are conducted in the native Arab language which many migrant workers do not know how to speak. Furthermore, because many of the migrant workers are poor they cannot afford proper representation.

I believe that it is extremely unlikely that migrant workers will be able to leave the current state of suppression they are in because they do not have the means or the support to do so. Furthermore, the monarch’s main job is to make Dubai a tourist destination, as Dubai is the richest country. Therefore, I do not believe that the government would invest in fair labour wages for migrant workers given their goal. Without legislation that makes companies comply to basic human rights, I don’t see the conditions of migrant workers improving. Complicating the situation is the fact that there are many people in Asian countries that lack  jobs therefore there is no job security for those workers who stand up against the construction companies and protest the atrocious conditions they live in.

Emirates Centre. Migrant workers in the united arab emirates.

Pavlich.G. (2011). Law and Society Redefined. Canada. Oxford University Press

Riyasbabu, Baik, E.A. (2006). Burj dubai workers who protested may be sued. Khaleej Time

Anderson, B. (2009). Slaves in Dubai



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2 responses to “Barely there- Bare life

  1. This is a great post. You make an effective case. Importantly, you bring an analysis of political economy to bear on the operation of a zone of normalized exceptionality. This is crucial. Researchers who have built on Agamben’s work have drawn attention to the absence of concepts like capitalism or neoliberalism in his discussion of modern forms of sovereign power. As you note, the creation – through counter-law – of normalized practices of indentured labour in the contemporary context is informed by the pursuit of profit.

  2. basaltt

    Thanks Mike. I completely believe that the migrant workers in Dubai do not have any means to escape their current situation and the major cause is corporate greed. Its a sad reality that people aren’t aware of the human rights violations that are occurring simply because Dubai is a rich country. The logic is that a rich, progressive country like Dubai wouldn’t be engaging in such rights violations. In reality, these are the countries that we need to really watch out for because they are able to do atrocious things in secret without public scrutiny.