DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Construction on a skyscraper expected to be the world’s tallest was interrupted when Asian workers upset over low wages and poor treatment smashed cars and offices in a riot that an official said Wednesday caused nearly $1 million in damage.
That triggered a sympathy strike at Dubai International Airport, where thousands of laborers building a new terminal lay down their tools, officials said.
Some 2,500 workers who are building the Burj Dubai tower and surrounding housing developments chased and beat security officers Tuesday night, smashed computers and files in offices, and destroyed about two dozen cars and construction machines, witnesses said.
The workers were angered because buses to their residential camp were delayed after their shifts, witnesses at the site said.
An Interior Ministry official who investigates labor issues, Lt. Col. Rashid Bakhit Al Jumairi, said the rioters caused almost $1 million in damage.
The protesting workers are among almost 1 million migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere who have poured into Dubai to provide the low-wage muscle behind one of the world’s great building booms. In five decades, Dubai has grown from a primitive town of 20,000 to a gridlocked metropolis of 1.5 million.
The workers, employed by the Dubai construction firm of Al Naboodah Laing O’Rourke, returned to the vast site Wednesday but refused to work.
Crowds of blue-garbed workers milled in the shadow of the concrete tower, now 36 stories tall, while leaders negotiated with officials from the company and the Ministry of Labor.
“Everyone is angry here. No one will work,” said Khalid Farouk, 39, a laborer with Al Naboodah. Other workers said their leaders were asking for pay raises: skilled carpenters on the site earned $7.60 per day, with laborers getting $4 per day.
A reporter inquiring about the riots was ordered to leave the site by an Al Naboodah manager who refused to give his name. The firm’s business development manager, Jonathan Eveleigh, declined to comment when reached by telephone.
Al Jumairi said the laborers were also asking Al Naboodah, one of the Emirates’ biggest construction conglomerates, for overtime pay, better medical care and humane treatment by foremen.
“They are asking for small things,” said Al Jumairi, the labor investigator. “I promised them I would sit with them until everything is settled.”
Al Jumairi later said he was being diverted to negotiate with idled laborers at the airport.
Labor unrest in Gulf countries have recently become common, with some two dozen strikes last year in the United Arab Emirates alone. Most have centered on unpaid salaries and triggered a Labor Ministry crackdown on contract-breaching companies.
The strikes and riots by Al Naboodah workers marred what otherwise appeared to be smooth construction of the Burj Dubai, which is to be a spire-shaped, stainless-steel-skinned tower expected to soar far beyond 100 stories.
Emaar, the tower’s Dubai developer, is keeping the final height a secret until the $900 million Burj is complete by 2008.
A section of the tower is to host a 172-room luxury hotel operated by Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani.
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