Slave Labor in the United Arab Emirates

There’s a swimming pool at the second place I stayed at in Dubai recently and, for safety’s sake, a lifeguard works there. The first interaction I had with him was when I was about to enter the water. He came over to me and asked me to please take a shower first, since he had noticed that I hadn’t done so. “Sure thing, I said,” and proceeded to rinse my body off.

After my swim, I decided to ask him a bunch of questions, simply out of curiosity. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Note: To protect the lifeguard’s identity, I’m calling him “Lionel” rather than using his actual name and I won’t be posting any pictures of him or the swimming pool where he works. Furthermore, he’s not from Nigeria, the other lifeguard’s name is not Philippe, and I’ve also changed the amount of time “Lionel” has been working at the pool.

Hey, so, is the pool 25 meters?

I think so, yes.

Hmmm. I think it’s probably closer to 23 or 24 meters. It’s kind of like the pool I was using in Abu Dhabi. That one was a little shorter, though. I think it was closer to 21 or 22 meters. By the way, where are you from?

I’m from Nigeria.

No way. The lifeguard in Abu Dhabi was also from Nigeria! His name was Philippe. I don’t suppose you know him?

Philippe? I don’t think so, no. There are a lot of people here from Nigeria as well as from other African countries.

Yeah, I know. I saw a lot of Africans in Abu Dhabi, too. So how long have you been here?

About six months.

And you came here for the money?

Yeah, sure, but the money isn’t very good. It’s better in Abu Dhabi.

No way! The money in Abu Dhabi is better than it is here in Dubai?

Yes, really. I’m only making 1500 AED (about USD 400) per month. The guy in Abu Dhabi is probably getting 2000 (USD 550) or maybe even 2200 (USD 600) or something like that. I want to go to Abu Dhabi, I want to work there, but it’s not easy. You have to know someone.

You make so little but the money’s still better than what you could earn back home in (African country), right?

Yes. There I would probably just get half of what I’m getting here.

Jesus! What kind of hours do you work?

12 hours. From 9am to 9pm.

Wait, what? You work the entire shift? You’re the only lifeguard for this pool?


That’s crazy. That guy in Abu Dhabi only works from 6am to 2pm and then another guy works the second shift, from 2pm to 10pm. So they each work 8-hour shifts. And I think he gets picked up to go home right after his shift.

I believe it. The working conditions in Abu Dhabi are better. Here they’re no good. I really want to go work in Abu Dhabi.

So you get off at 9pm?

Yes, but I don’t get picked up until 10, so after 9 I usually swim a little and just relax.

Oh, my God, really? So you are here for 13 hours? How long does it take you to get home?

Only about 15 minutes.

OK, well, that’s not bad at least. What about your days off? Do you get weekends off or some days off during the week or what?

Days off? I haven’t had a day off in six months.

Are you kidding me? When did you start working here?

I started in the fall and didn’t have a day off until the spring.

And you haven’t had any other days off?


When do you think you’ll have your next day off?

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have to call in sick.

That’s crazy. That’s a lot of months with only one day off. What about your living situation? Do you live by yourself or what’s that like?

I live with 5 other guys. We have bunkbeds. (He shows me some pictures after I ask.)

What about a kitchen? Do you guys have your own kitchen?

No, no, no. There’s one kitchen in the building. There are about 400 rooms in the building, each with 6 men, so that’s 2400 guys. And we all share one kitchen. I sometimes go there but there’s always a line, so you have to wait to cook. So I almost never cook.

Oh, my God, that’s terrible! Do you have your own bathroom or is that shared, too?

That’s shared, too. And sometimes it’s really dirty. A lot of the people are really, really dirty, so sometimes I don’t even shower.

Is everyone in your room a lifeguard?

No, three of us are lifeguards. The other three are security guards.

And it’s men only, right?

Yeah. Women aren’t allowed in our building.

Wow. OK, and does each building around here have one lifeguard?

Yes, and they all work for the same company.

So it’s not a good company, is it?

No, no. I don’t like working for this company.

OK, but, can you at least quit working at any time or are you stuck working for them?

I can quit. That’s not really a problem.

OK, well, that’s also good, but I hope you can get a better job soon.

Me, too!

The three biggest takeaways for me from this conversation I had with “Lionel” were:

  1. He essentially works 13 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  2. He has had only one day off in a long time and doesn’t know when his next day off will be.
  3. His salary is very low but still higher than what it would be in his home country.

If your working and living situations are better than those of Lionel, please be thankful and stay humble, because if you had been born in a different place, there’s a good chance you could be Lionel, aka Modern-Day Slave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *