Life

Amid Luxury, Late Wages for Migrant Workers at Trump Dubai Links

“He has countless amounts of money! We are very far away from our houses, from our children, our families. It hurts us.”

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They are not inclined to complain, not about the merciless sun or the 110-degree heat, as they labor to transform the pale sands of the Arabian desert into verdant fairways. They accept with resignation that their families are far away, in India, Pakistan or Nepal.

What these migrant workers cannot abide is how frequently their employer, a local construction company, pays them late, delaying the money they send home and forcing their families to borrow. They are especially frustrated given where they have been dispatched to work — the Trump International Golf Club, part of President Donald Trump’s global array of business interests.

“He has countless amounts of money!” fumed a 24-year-old Pakistani who works as a driver for the local construction company that has a contract at the course, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. “We are very far away from our houses, from our children, our families. It hurts us.”

The Trump International Golf Club, which officially opened in February, is the centerpiece of Damac Hills, a gated complex of 4,000 luxury villas and 7,500 condos selling for as much as $4 million each. Sixteen miles to the east, a second Trump-branded course is being built inside an even larger resort, Akoya Oxygen, where a recent promotion beckoned: Buy two villas and get two Mercedes-Benzes.

While the president’s company, the Trump Organization, is not the workers’ employer, it manages the properties through a partnership with Damac, one of Dubai’s largest real estate developers. Trump has earned $2 million to $10 million from the two golf courses, according to financial disclosures he filed last year with the Federal Election Commission. The structures of the deals on the two properties are unclear.

The migrant workers make $200 to $400 a month, money that frequently comes weeks or months late, prompting recent strikes, according to interviews conducted by The New York Times with two dozen current and former workers at the Damac Hills course, where hundreds of laborers have been employed in recent years. The workers say they struggle to cover debts amassed in paying recruitment agents for their jobs, while confronting physical hardships and violations of their rights under local labor laws.

Most of the workers interviewed by The Times have been employees of a local construction company, Al Arif, which has a contract from Damac to build parts of the course and surrounding villas at Damac Hills. They spoke on condition that they not be identified, citing risks they could be fired and deported because their visas were sponsored by their employer.

Workers aboard an un-air conditioned Al Arif construction company bus that shuttles them between their camp and 10-hour work days, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2017. Photo: New York Times

There is no evidence that Trump is aware of the conditions for the workers employed by the contractor at his golf course. He has handed over management of his company to two of his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. The Trump Organization’s purview has been designing and managing the courses, leaving the construction to Damac.

The White House did not respond to questions, referring inquiries to the Trump Organization.

“Trump is not the owner or developer of Trump International Golf Club Dubai nor does it oversee construction or employ or supervise any of the companies or individuals who have been retained to work on the building of the project,” a company spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, said in an emailed statement.

“Trump has a zero-tolerance policy,” the statement continued. “To the extent any worker at the project believes they are being treated improperly, we would urge them to immediately notify their employer and the proper governmental authorities.”

Damac’s senior vice president for marketing and corporate communications, Niall McLoughlin, did not respond to requests for comment.

A receptionist at Al Arif Group in Dubai referred calls to the head of the company’s immigration department, Aziz Dashti, and supplied a mobile telephone number. A man who answered the number initially confirmed that he was Dashti and rejected claims of worker mistreatment. Later, he said he was not Dashti.

Dubai and the broader United Arab Emirates have drawn notoriety for the exploitation of migrant laborers, who make up more than 80 percent of the national population. By that measure, it is the largest concentration of migrants in the world.

U.S. leaders have traditionally championed elevated labor standards around the world. The State Department details abuses of labor standards in its annual human rights reports.

“We really don’t want to be in a situation where senior government officials are thinking about how much money they are going to cost themselves by enforcing U.S. government policy,” said Robert W. Gordon, a law professor at Stanford and an expert on conflicts of interest, referring to Trump’s public role and private business. “We are talking here about the head of the U.S. government personally benefiting from lax labor standards in another country.”

The workers at Al Arif described a constant state of anxiety over when they would be paid.

Typically, they must wait days or weeks to receive what is due. They have frequently engaged in strikes lasting one or two days, after which Al Arif has made good.

More than half the workers said Al Arif had withheld one or two months of pay to pressure them to remain until the end of their contracts, typically two years.

worker from India earns extra money by watching a construction site during the three-hour midday break required by United Arab Emirates law, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2017. Photo: New York Times

Six of the workers said they had paid recruitment companies to get their jobs — an apparent violation of United Arab Emirates’ labor law. They have been charged fees of $1,000 to $1,500, more than most will earn in five months.

All the workers said their employer held their passports, which also violates national law. This effectively makes it impossible for them to seek better positions elsewhere.

That Trump’s company would find its way to Dubai seems inevitable. The city of Dubai has emerged as a pre-eminent playground for the fabulously wealthy. Its skyline comprises a riotous profusion of futuristic skyscrapers, among them the world’s tallest building. It has islands shaped like palm trees, opulent restaurants, spas with treatments worthy of a maharajah, and an indoor ski area.

In Damac, Trump’s company has found a like-minded partner, one that has emblazoned its name across skyscrapers.

The company’s founder, Hussain Sajwani, has a net worth estimated at around $4 billion, earning him the nickname “the Donald of Dubai,” a nod to Trump. He and his family spent New Year’s Eve with Trump at his Florida resort, and he attended the president’s inauguration.

In an interview with The Times last year, McLoughlin, the Damac spokesman, said Trump had visited Damac Hills several times.

“When Donald Trump was here, he was looking at the course, looking at the trees,” McLoughlin said. “He wanted one tree moved. The details of the course, the buggies, the shirts, and the staffing, the restaurant design, and the furniture and the management. His attention to detail is tremendous.”

When the Trump International Golf Club opened in February, Donald Jr. and Eric, the president’s sons, both attended.

“It’s rare in the world where you can be such great friends with a partner,” Eric Trump declared. “Damac is an amazing company.”

Donald Trump Jr. praised the vision of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “In Dubai, if you can envision it, you can build it,” he said.

Building anything in Dubai invariably involves migrant workers, in transactions that often deviate from the law.

Human rights organizations have cataloged widespread labor violations in the United Arab Emirates. In response, the government has made it permissible for migrant workers to change jobs while outlawing payments to recruitment firms.

But officials frequently invest in real estate deals, undermining their incentive to enforce labor standards.

“The entire system is rife with conflicts of interests and the exploitation of migrant workers,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

Major players seek to shield themselves from liability by subcontracting to local companies. “That is the classic way that international companies try to dodge responsibility,” Whitson said.

Al Arif, the company supplying workers for the Trump course at Damac Hills, houses its workers in isolated apartment complexes in the desert. Several thousand workers fill closet-size rooms. Most occupy bunk beds. Some sleep on mats.

The housing complex is miles from shops and food stalls, forcing workers to buy provisions from a small store inside the camp. They pay 5 dirhams — about $1.35 — for 1.5 liters of water, double the cost in downtown Dubai.

The company transports workers to the Damac Hills site in buses that lack air-conditioning. Fans blow hot air through the vehicles as men bunch together, dabbing at sweaty bodies with muslin scarves.

The Pakistani driver who works at the Trump course arrived three years ago, seeking to support his wife and two boys. He took a job driving a pickup, earning over $800 a month, or more than twice his pay at home.

He is supposed to be paid within the first five days of the month. Frequently, a week or more passes without the money arriving.

“My family is dependent on me,” he says. “When I don’t send money, shopkeepers stop giving groceries to my family.”

In January, laborers refused to work until they were paid, resuming only when the money arrived the next day. The months since have seen similar work stoppages.

Paindkhel, 28, arrived last year from Pakistan, where his family grows wheat and potatoes. He paid a recruitment agent $1,500, borrowing funds from neighbors and relatives.

Paindkhel is not familiar with golf. He does not understand the purpose of the lush grass that he and his co-workers have grown in the desert, although he admires its serene beauty.

He cannot read the signs identifying the golf resort as a Trump property. He cannot read at all.

But he sees the chandeliers in the clubhouse, the air-conditioning equipment in the surrounding villas. Then he rides the furnace-like bus back to the camp and waits for a shower in a grubby bathroom.

“They are spending so much money on the materials for buildings,” he says, “but so little on us.”

His friend shrugs. There are no good jobs back in Pakistan, he says. Hardships notwithstanding, this is their livelihood.

© 2017 New York Times News Service

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