Dubai, the Middle East’s version of “El Dorado,” is well known as a booming metropolis of oil money for insanely wealthy people whose problems range from Lamborghinis not having enough gold on them to just having too much money. However, there is a side of Dubai that the government works hard to cover up, and it has to do with the people who actually built the “Disneyland” for billionaires.
Iranian photographer Farhad Berahman captured photos of the South Asian laborers who build luxury high-rises and yachts. After seeing the living conditions of some of the poorest people in Dubai, it wouldn’t be hard to say that they’re just a few steps from modern slavery.
This is the work camp of Sonapur, which, ironically, in Hindi means “City of Gold,” far on the outskirts of Dubai. Migrant workers have their passports confiscated upon arrival by employers so they can’t leave the country, and Berahman explains that they are fearful of the government.
“I did not try to get permission since these areas are restricted to the public and I was sure I would be unsuccessful since the UAE does not wish to show this aspect of their country … So, I took pictures at night when it was much easier to hide from security. As soon as I started meeting laborers and getting to know them, I realized they were scared of me.”
Towards the end of his journey Berahman was arrested and questioned for being in Sonapur.
“I pretended to be a lost tourist and the security wanted to report me to the police since the laborers’ area is forbidden to photograph.”
Everything here is makeshift and improvised by the workers who live there. A barber sets up shop with a broken mirror next to a dumpster.
Sonapur is home to over 150,000 workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.
They sleep in crammed 12-ft by 12-ft vermin infested rooms that house six to eight workers each with no air conditioning.
Below, workers construct luxury yachts for tourists that sell for over $3.5 million.
Workers are transported every evening to construction sites by bus. Working at night keeps workers out of the daytime heat which can go up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.
“According to the government’s laws, work places should close down during this kind of temperature in order not to harm laborers and their health, but the government often does not even announce the right weather temperature.”
Laborers construct buildings in Dubai, working around 14 hours a day in conditions tourists are advised not to spend more than five minutes in.
Laborers spend their free time playing a game called Carrom, which they built themselves.
To make extra money, some workers open up food stands
For workers who can’t afford to buy food, there are dirty cubicle kitchens. Workers had to build their own makeshift gas lines which, unsurprisingly, are not subject to safety laws.
Cooking in the Sonapur kitchens means preparing food in unsanitary conditions. There is no alternative.
Twenty-seven-year-old Jahangir from Bangladesh has worked as a cleaner for four years, earning only 800 AED (just under US $218 a month). He sends 500 AED (US $136) to his family back home and uses the rest for rent and food.
Berahman told the story of one Chinese worker who pulled him aside:
“One of the Chinese workers stopped me, took me to his room and showed me a sign he had written on some wood.
It read: ‘Dear HLG Boss, I am working in your company already 1 years, my contract was expired but I can not get my salary all (4 month less). I must going to China soon. Please pay for my money.’ “
Twenty-four-year-old Ali Sadam has worked as a cleaner for two years and lives in Sonapur with five roommates.
Traders set up shop on the ground in Sonapur (left). This is what showering in Sonapur is like with minimal water (right).
“I think treating humans so cruelly is against their human rights and yet it still exists around us.”
The mosque in Sonapur is one of the few buildings that is well-kept.
“I can’t tell anyone what to think of the images, but I believe they speak for themselves.”
Muslim laborers during their evening prayer.