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Sat 19 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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Labour pains

The fickle media turns from Egypt to ask what Middle East country is next

Labour pains
Demonstrators in Bahrain.
Labour pains

Following the recent brouhaha in Egypt, I got a phonecall from my parents in South Africa enquiring as to how I was coping. Said parents were a bit apprehensive when I decided to accept a job offer in the Middle East a few years ago, equating the region with one of those places on the maps of yore where they put dragons and squiggly lines to show the extent of human knowledge and exploration. The global media, of course, has been breathlessly spinning the Egypt situation into the general meltdown of the entire Middle East.

The sensation-mongering media must have thought President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation a particularly damp-squib ending to such a potentially explosive situation, so it immediately began to ask: which part of the region is next? This is the sort of speculation that caught the attention of my parents, who have always found it difficult to equate the glitz and glamour of Dubai with the more conventional, and wholly misplaced, regional associations of camels and religious extremism. A popular sentiment among closet revolutionaries everywhere is that construction workers, in particular, representing the exploited and oppressed majority, would rise up in their mutual demand for an improved quality of life. Recently 71 Bangladeshi nationals, identified as instigating a strike involving 5,000 Arabtec workers, were deported from Dubai. The dispute revolved around that old chestnut, wages.

This got me thinking about the social compact that exists between the construction industry in general and the larger society it, literally, builds up. Already the talk in Egypt is turning to the anticipated upsurge in infrastructure spending as the authorities try to appease the demands of a burgeoning urban populace.

In the Middle East, while the real-estate bubble has burst in Dubai, the rest of the region is scrabbling to catch up. The desire for icons in the desert has been replaced by the more prosaic, but far more revolutionary, notion that it is better to build roads and sewerage and water networks, and then to add the baubles of kilometre-tall towers and other fripperies.

The construction industry sits uncomfortably between being simply about buildings, and contributing to social stratification and inequality. Governments and contractors have made major strides in improving labour camps and ensuring that the summer midday work ban is adhered to, for example. At the end of the day, I suppose, the construction industry cannot say it is only about buildings, and leave the rest of it to the politicians and bureaucrats. It was political will that transformed Dubai into an architectural wonderland, and it was the construction industry that turned that will into a concrete reality.

The construction industry understands that people are far less likely to take to the streets if they have adequate housing and decent communities to live in, and a pleasant enough urban environment to prosper in.

Gerhard Hope is the editor of Construction Week.

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