A Different Kind Of Workaday World

January 29, 1994
Abu Dhabi, UAE

I haven't found a job yet, but I have a couple of irons in the fire, and I’m doing the odd freelance project for a local public relations and advertising firm.

I applied for a position (Head of Information Section), with the Abu Dhabi Seaport Authority, and have been for two interviews, and an equal number of examinations in the past two weeks.

The job was advertised in mid-September, they called me for the first interview three weeks later.  I'm the only female candidate for the position, along with six men (I know who the competition is because we all had to write a test at the same time).

They're also considering me for the 'lower' position of public relations supervisor, for which I’m the lone female candidate on a ‘short list’ of 13.

Paperwork, Paperwork, Paperwork

It's been interesting to say the least.  As part of the process I was asked to supply original 'certificates' (i.e. my university degree and college diploma), along with reference letters from all my employers since 1982.

The original certificates has to be attested – an onerous process involving the consulate in Dubai (there’s no Canadian embassy in the UAE), the institutions themselves, letter writing, translation services, couriers and trips back and forth between various government offices.

Based on these documents (i.e. the certificates and reference letters), they calculate the numbers of years’ experience one has.  It seems they don’t look at your resume, just the documentation.  In all fairness, they've probably been hoodwinked and conned with false papers and people telling them packs of lies – so I guess it’s a question of once bitten, twice shy.

I've also had a medical, been fingerprinted, attended an internal marketing meeting, etceteras.  It's been over four months since the job was first advertised in the local paper.  By the time they make a hiring decision, I'll be on my way back to Canada!

There's also a possibility for an editorial position for me with the local paper.  So it looks very much as if I'll be working soon.  No doubt I'll have to cut down on the length of these letters when that happens, as I'll be far to busy making money to go on and on as I've done in this one – that’s my hope anyway!

Six Days A Week

It really is a man's world here.  Never mind equality, it feels to me as if they are still in the Middle Ages as far as women's and minority rights.  In court it takes the testimony of two women to equal that of one man.  Salaries for women are half what they are for men.  Women must get permission from their husbands to drive or work or leave the country – I even had to produce a letter from Bobby saying he would allow me work as part of my application for employment with the Seaport Authority.

If I do get a job - I'm still very hopeful despite the hurdles I face - it will likely involve a six-day work week.  The vast majority of the workforce here labours long and hard with only Fridays off.  And just about everyone works split shifts from 8 a.m.- 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. - 7 p.m., although single shifts - from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. - are becoming less of a rarity.

Either way it's cruel and unusual punishment to work six days a week in my opinion.  And it must seem like you're working two days in one with the split shifts.  What a drag! 

Hard Work For Small Returns

Many people are worse off though.  The doormen at our apartment complex, for example, work from 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 4:00 p.m. to midnight seven days a week, 365 days a year, for two or three years before they get a two- or three-month holiday back in their home countries (India, Pakistan, etc.).

They get paid AED 600 a month (approximately $200 Canadian).  People have told me that makes them rich by Pakistani standards, but still, it doesn't seem right to me...  And if it's true, what does that say for the standard of living in Pakistan?  Our doorman left three weeks ago: he was granted an early leave because his father died; he hadn't seen him since the last time he was home more than two years ago.

The abundance of cheap labour in the UAE means I have recently become a madam.  (No, not that kind!)

"Madam" is what the housemaids call their employers no matter how many times you tell them you prefer otherwise:  "Grace, I really wish that you would call me Susan instead of madam and you can call Bob, Bob not "sir," I said to the housemaid the other day.  "Yes madam," she replied with a nod and a smile.

Grace’s Story

Grace is from Sri Lanka, a pleasant, short, round and dark-skinned woman with clear green eyes and long black hair.  She’s been in the UAE since 1987.  After the younger of her two sons, a member of the Sri Lankan police, was badly injured in a grenade blast two years ago, she brought both of them, then aged 26 and 27, to the UAE to escape the civil strife in her country.

Since then she has supported the two sons as well as her husband who remains in Sri Lanka because he’s too ill to travel.  Last year she was able to find a job for one of the sons as a labourer at the airport.  He makes AED 1,000 (about CDN $270) a month.

The other son remains unemployed.  Grace makes AED 10 per hour doing housework, and is still trying to pay off the debt she incurred when she borrowed money to fly her two sons here in 1991.

Grace's story isn't unique.  I'm sure there are as many horrific stories of desperate lives as there are expatriate labourers in the UAE.  Not a day goes by that I'm not thankful for how lucky we are.

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